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Deciding Whether to Stay or Leave

Why partners become more or less committed to their relationship.

Leaving a long-term intimate relationship is never an easy thing to do. When things are not going well in our relationships, our minds often stray towards thoughts of how much better our lives would be without our current partner.

But acting on a desire to leave requires great effort—packing our things, setting up a new life for ourselves, and making the final announcement that the relationship is over, not just to our partner but also to our family and friends. It also demands a high degree of confidence that leaving is better in the long run than staying.

In contrast, staying in a relationship isn’t so much a decision we have to act on rather than simply accepting the status quo. As long as we get up each morning and muddle through our daily routine, we are staying in the relationship, whether we’ve made an intentional decision to do so or not.

Plenty of research confirms what we already intuitively know, namely that when people are satisfied with their relationships they stay in them. However, people who are dissatisfied with their relationships don’t necessarily leave. In fact, many unhappy couples endure a life sentence together, sometimes out of perceived social pressure to do so, and other times because they’ve resigned themselves to the idea that this is the best they can do.

What then predicts whether a couple in a committed relationship will eventually break up? This is the question that Syracuse University Laura Machia and her colleague Brian Ogolsky explored in an article they recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Machia and Ogolsky pursue their research question within a framework known as Interdependence Theory. In brief, Interdependence Theory proposes that we enter into relationships to get our needs met. Of course, that also requires that we endeavor to meet the needs of our partner. Hence, the two members of the relationship are interdependent on one another.

According to Interdependence Theory, we evaluate the outcome of every interaction we have with our partner, mentally tallying each as positive or negative. If the outcomes are mostly positive, we’ll feel satisfied with the relationship. And if the negatives outweigh the positives, we’ll feel dissatisfied.

At the same time, we also compare the actual outcomes of the relationship with the imagined outcomes of being in an alternative situation instead. Even if the “balance sheet” is more positive than negative, we may still feel dissatisfied if we believe we could do even better elsewhere.

Thus, Interdependence Theory predicts that the reasons that drive us to leave a relationship aren’t just the mirror opposite of those that motivate us to stay. For example, compatible personalities, shared interests, and trust are all characteristics that people often name when they explain why they’re satisfied with their relationship. However, incompatible personalities, lack of shared interests, and broken trust are generally not sufficient, in and of themselves, to motivate people to act on their desire to leave the relationship.

The idea that people stay for different reasons than they leave is a tenet of Interdependence Theory that is generally accepted even though it hasn’t been formally tested until now. This then was the goal of Machia and Ogolsky’s study.

To examine the dynamics of staying together and parting ways in committed relationships, the researchers recruited 232 dating couples to take part in a longitudinal study. Once a month for nine months, each partner was individually interviewed about the state of their relationship.

The key question in each interview was how committed the person was to eventually marrying their partner, and this was plotted on a graph ranging from 0 percent (absolutely certain they would not marry) to 100 percent (absolutely certain they would get married). If the current level of commitment had changed, either positive or negative, from the previous month’s level, they were asked to explain what had happened in the interim that had altered their feelings.

Participants typically explained upward movements in level of commitment to positive characteristics of their partner or the relationship as a whole, such as shared interests or common friends. In contrast, they generally attributed downward movements to unfavorable circumstances that made the relationship difficult to maintain, or else they explained it in terms of conflict. This patterning of reports lends support to the prediction of Interdependence Theory that people stay for different reasons than they leave.

Afterward, the researchers used these reports to search for patterns among those who were still in the relationship at the end of nine months versus those who had left their partners. By the end of the study, almost 20 percent of the couples had broken up. Not surprisingly, virtually all of these participants reported low levels of satisfaction and commitment to the relationship at the very first interview.

Thus, it’s clear that partners who left were unhappy with the relationship. However, many participants who reported low levels of satisfaction nevertheless stayed with their partner for the duration of the study. In fact, some participants even described current difficulties in with their partner as positive events, in that they provided opportunities for growth in the relationship. Clearly, dissatisfaction with the relationship is not a sufficient reason for leaving it.

In the final analysis, only one thing predicted whether the relationship would fail, and that was the availability of alternative partners. That is to say, the couples who broke up during the timeframe of the study did so because they had left their current partner for somebody new. This finding provides strong support for Interdependence Theory, particularly the tenet that people only leave relationships when the available alternatives are perceived as better than the current situation.

We all know couples who stay together even though they’re unhappy with their relationship, and we wonder why. The results of this study by Machia and Ogolsky suggest an answer. Namely, unhappy couples stay together because they cannot imagine an alternative situation that is any better than what they currently have.

Facebook image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock


Machia, L. V. & Ogolsky, B. G. (2020). The reasons people think about staying and leaving their romantic relationships: A mixed-method analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0146167220966903

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