How Do We Decide Whether or Not to Break Up?

New research offers insight into our reasoning around ending relationships.

Posted Aug 07, 2017

nd3000/Shutterstock
Source: nd3000/Shutterstock

Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double     —
The Clash

Deciding whether to stay in a relationship is challenging for a lot of us — it can be (but isn't always) one of the hardest decisions we may face. Sometimes we are mired in indecision, and sometimes we "know" we should leave, but "can't" bring ourselves to do it. Sometimes it is really, really hard to walk away, until something happens, and then all of a sudden it is clear the relationship is over. It can depend a lot on who we are — whether we get "too attached" to others, or if we stay aloof, or if we have a "healthy" attitude about relationships — but loss can still be hard to endure.

We typically invest a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into relationships, and put a lot on the line. We risk spending our valuable time pursuing a relationship which may not work out, passing up opportunities which might appear (although we don't actually know if they would work out.) We invest ourselves emotionally, making ourselves vulnerable to loss, disappointment, and even anger at ourselves for sticking around too long. If we have children and are thinking of leaving our partner, we weigh heavily whether it will be better for the kids or worse. On the other hand, we may guard ourselves from intimacy and manage expectations by betting against our own relationships — making it hard to get close to others in the first place, and harder to invest in a relationship even when we do.

We may be more motivated to try and work on a relationship in which we've invested a lot of time and energy. Evolution may have biased us to look after our investments, but sometimes this means we end up throwing good money after bad. The same is true of relationships: We may keep trying to invest more and more, with diminishing returns. Past that tipping point, it makes sense to divert resources into new relationships — and end the current one in the best way possible.

If we've had many relationships which haven't worked out, the demand rises to make each successive relationship work. Yet the risk of failure also rises, because at that point, we've become identified with being a failed participant in intimacy. At some point, we may start to wonder if we can have a successful relationship with anyone, leading to serious self-doubt and, sometimes, depression. When a relationship ends, there can be a strong sense of failure and shame — but also relief.

Researchers have looked into why people say they've ended relationships and how we think about infidelity. These are relevant findings, but what do they tell us about what happens when we are in the middle of the tormenting decision about whether to stay and work on a relationship, stay and possibly not have it change for the better, or leave it behind?

The Heart Hath Reasons

With this question in mind, Joel, MacDonald, and Page-Gould (2017) sought to look at the decision-making process and the factors partners weigh when they are in a long-term relationship and actively considering whether to stay or go. In addition to designing a study to identify all the factors people consider — those in favor of staying, those in favor of leaving, and those which overlap — they also looked at attachment style to see if there were any correlations with insecure attachment, notably anxious and avoidant attachment styles. Specifically, they thought that people with an anxious attachment style would be more likely to experience ambivalence and conflict when considering the future of relationships.

The team developed two research protocols: In the first study, they set out to create a reliable survey tool to identify and measure the factors people think about when relationships are on the line, dividing those considerations into reasons to stay and reasons to go; and to look at which factors were most important in different samples of adults. In the second study, they refined their survey based on findings from the first to look more specifically at different attachment styles and any differences between people considering breaking up from dating someone, as opposed to those considering divorce when married.

In Study 1, they looked at three samples, asking participants open-ended questions about reasons they would consider staying or leaving, and analyzed those responses to develop the survey tool for Study 2. The three samples were two groups of undergraduates averaging about 20 years old, few of whom were married; 40 percent men; and dating for about 17 months on average. There was a diverse range of experiences of contemplating relationships, and some of the relationships were newer and some more established. In the third sample in Study 1, they looked at an older group of adults who were (then) currently considering ending their relationship. In that group of 171 participants, the average age was 31.7; 37 percent were men; and on average the length of their relationships was nearly four years. A quarter of these participants were married, or in a common-law relationship they considered equivalent to marriage; the rest were dating seriously.

After breaking down the responses into common categories, they found that people reported 25 different reasons for wanting to stay and 23 reasons for wanting to leave. Some factors, such as the partner's personality, could belong to both categories. [The full tables are at the end of this post blog for readers who want to delve into more detail.]

What were the results of Study 1? The most common reason for wanting to stay in the relationship was "emotional intimacy" (mentioned by 53 percent of those contemplating a breakup), and the most common reasons for wanting to leave were breach of trust (overall) and breach of trust and a partner's personality (tied at 30 percent among those currently thinking about breaking up).

In discussing the overall findings from Study 1, the authors note that participants' reasons for staying or leaving were reflective of concepts identified in prior relationship research:

1. Investment. People thought about how invested they were in terms of staying in the relationship, with categories including "logistical barriers" to leaving, "habituation" to the relationship, and "pursuit of other opportunities" tipping toward a decision to leave. 

2. Social Support Network. People included social support as a factor which could support both leaving and staying — including "social pressure" to stay, and the "social consequences" of staying as a reason to leave.

3. Responsiveness. Partners who provided "validation" were seen as a reason to stay, while relationships with a "lack of validation" provided a reason to leave.

4. Self-expansion. Similarly, being in a relationship that furthered "improvement of the self" was seen as a reason to stay, while being in a relationship "hindering of self-improvement" was a reason to leave.

5. Relationship expectations. Having a sense of "optimism" about the future was a reason to stay, but seeing "problems with long-term prospects" was a reason to leave.

Not only do these basic findings help to clarify factors which may predict whether people remain in relationships, as well as the future quality of those relationships, but they also identify which factors people explicitly think about when trying to decide what to do when in relationships which are unsatisfying, or when they are thinking about whether they could find a better partner. Understanding these factors can help people think through the pros and cons of working on their own relationship, and identify areas in which their relationship could be improved.

Notably, there were reasons for staying that did not have a counterpart in reasons for leaving, and vice versa — for example, while breach of trust was a reason to leave, being faithful was not offered as a reason to stay. People reported dependence on the relationship as a reason to stay, but lack of dependence was not reported as a reason to leave. This suggests that how people think about staying and how people think about going are related, but still distinct decision-making processes. That they appear distinct in key ways is important, because this could result in greater ambivalence and conflict for people torn between reasons to stay and reasons to go. If reasons to stay and go mainly overlapped, we'd expect less ambivalence.

The Biggest Reasons

In Study 2, researchers took the reasons from Study 1 and devised a survey tool from the reasons people gave when considering breaking up. They used several additional rating tools to look at: attachment style, measuring both anxious and avoidant attachment; level of investment, looking at how much work people had put into the relationship and how easily they thought they could find a better relationship to invest in; level of commitment, addressing how much people wanted their relationship to last over the long term; dissolution considerations, looking at how much people had thought about the relationship ending; and stay/leave reasons, using the results of Study 1 to look at the various stay and leave categories, and rating them on a scale of how much people agreed or disagreed with those reasons when thinking about their own relationships.

In Study 2, they looked at two samples. One was of people who were dating and considering breaking up; the other included people who were married and considering separation or divorce. The dating sample included 121 people, 36 percent men, with an average age of 28, and an average relationship duration of 22 months. The marriage sample was comprised of 106 participants, 27 percent men, with an average age of 28 years, and an average time married of nine years.

The team found that the biggest reasons for wanting to leave were similar in the two groups — emotional distance, inequity, partner's personality, and violations of expectations were most commonly cited. The stay reasons were different for breaking up a dating relationship than for marriage. For breaking up, the most common reasons for staying were "approach-based" — positive partner personality traits, emotional intimacy, and enjoyment. For married people, the most common stay reasons were "avoidance-based" — investment, family responsibilities, fear of uncertainty, and logistical barriers to splitting up. Not surprisingly, the balance of reasons to stay and reasons to leave appears to go into the decision-making process for people thinking of ending their relationship, whether they are dating or married.

Attachment Style and Relationship Decisions

Anxiously attached individuals were more likely than others to report a greater number of reasons for both staying and leaving. Further, anxious attachment did not have a negative correlation with either stay or leave reasons, suggesting a greater level of ambivalence. The study authors note that as suggested in the previous literature on relationships, their findings support the implication that avoidantly attached people tend to be more pessimistic about relationships and more guarded against intimacy.

On the other hand, in both samples, avoidant attachment was negatively associated with reasons for staying. For example, people who reported avoidant traits less often noted wanting to stay because of reasons like optimism, emotional intimacy, comfort, and companionship. Moreover, avoidant attachment was positively correlated with reasons to leave, including lack of enjoyment and loss of attraction in the dating group, and hindering of self-improvement and too much commitment in the marriage group.

The Big Picture

When Joel and colleagues analyzed all the reasons for staying or going, they found that three major categories came out of the data:

1. Approach-based Motivations to Stay. These were more important for dating than married couples.

2. Avoidance-based Motivations to Stay. These were more important for married than dating couples.

3. Motivation to Leave. These were similar for dating and married couples.

Looking at ambivalence (simultaneously reporting more reasons to stay and go than average) versus indifference (having fewer reasons to stay and go than average), the team found greater ambivalence among anxiously attached people and greater indifference among avoidantly attached people. With a looser definition, about 50 percent of the respondents were considered ambivalent; with a tighter definition, the percentage dropped to 30. Regardless, these findings show that a lot of people considering breaking up, whether married or dating, experience significant conflict about the decision.

This work reveals several important features about decision-making when the future of an important relationship is in doubt, and spells out that we weigh a variety of factors related to feelings about and consequences of both leaving and staying.

Depending on where we are in a relationship, we may more heavily look at some factors over others when it comes to thinking about staying. With dating relationships, we may more strongly consider staying in order to find what we are looking for, and with marital relationships we may stay because of what we don't want to deal with, at least in this sample. When it comes to reasons for leaving, however, they are less dependent on marital status than reasons for staying. Because the average age was comparatively low, it would be interesting to see if future research finds the same trends in older married couples contemplating separation and divorce. The question of whether people are making decisions based on what they are seeking or what they are staying away from may affect the outcome of the decision, and so is important to bear in mind in order to be better informed about a major life decision.

Finally, it is important when considering ending a relationship to be aware of one's attachment style, and to recognize the presence of ambivalence and indifference in our thinking. People who remain ambivalently involved in a long-term relationship may struggle to participate in the relationship in a way which leads to greater satisfaction, and may have difficulty making a clean break when they do decide to leave. Recognizing that this ambivalence may be driven by anxious attachment can help one think more clearly about the decision-making process. Slowing down to recognize anxious feelings which may be driving over-thinking — and dealing with the anxiety more effectively — may be useful. On the other hand, chronic indifference may be a sign of underlying avoidance of intimacy and lower consideration of both staying and leaving factors. For people with an avoidant attachment, consciously paying attention to challenging feelings and concerns is important to do in spite of the emotional discomfort.

Being more aware of our reasons for staying or going not only helps us think through our own decision, but greater shared recognition of these factors can provide important topics to discuss as a couple, both when considering ending a relationship and in order to seek greater satisfaction when remaining together.

Please send questions, topics or themes you'd like me to try and address in future blogs, via my PT bio page.

Detail:  Reasons to Stay & Reasons to Leave

Reasons to Stay, Joel et al., 2017
Source: Reasons to Stay, Joel et al., 2017
Reasons to Leave, Joel et al., 2017
Source: Reasons to Leave, Joel et al., 2017

References

Joel, S., MacDonald, G., and Page-Gould, E. (2017). Wanting to Stay and Wanting to Go: Unpacking the Content and Structure of Relationship Stay/Leave  Decision Processes, Social Psychological and  Personality Science, pp. 1-14.  DOI: 10.1177/1948550617722834