Leaving a relationship: Why science says it’s so hard

Leaving a relationship can be a wracking experience, full of doubt and Sophie’s choices of intimacy versus independence. The process and its outcome can even affect your health. Researchers have found some common threads among those dating, and among those married, that may help couples’ well-being whatever decision is made.

“Most of the research on breakups has been predictive, trying to predict whether a couple stays together or not, but we don’t know much about the decision process — what are the specific relationship pros and cons that people are weighing out,” noted University of Utah professor Samantha Joel.

The study took place in two phases. In the first, researchers recruited three cohorts, which included folks trying to figure out if they should leave a relationship. These people completed an anonymous survey of open-ended questions about why they might want to stay or leave. In the end, the organizers collected 27 reasons for wanting to stay in a relationship and 23 reasons for wanting to break up. These were then turned into a second questionnaire given to another group of recruits who were likewise debating their relationship futures. The group included married people (who had been together on average nine years) and people dating on average about two years.

Individuals in both dating and married situations gave similar reasons for wanting to leave a relationship: Breaches of trust, perceived issues in a partner’s personality, and partner withdrawal. But married people and daters had very different stay reasoning between the two groups. Daters tended to look at positive aspects such as good sides to their partner’s personality, emotional intimacy and simply enjoying the relationship. Those married cited things like family responsibilities, fear of uncertainty and logistical barriers. Nearly half of the participants acknowledged ambivalence, in that they had reasons to both stay and leave.

Said Joel: “What was most interesting to me was how ambivalent people felt about their relationships. They felt really torn…. Breaking up can be a really difficult decision. You can look at a relationship from outside and say ‘you have some really unsolvable problems, you should break up’ but from the inside that is a really difficult thing to do and the longer you’ve been in a relationship, the harder it seems to be…. Humans fall in love for a reason. From an evolutionary perspective, for our ancestors finding a partner may have been more important than finding the right partner. It might be easier to get into relationships than to get back out of them.”

The study was published in Social Psychology and Personality Science. Co-authors were Geoff MacDonald and Elizabeth Page-Gould of the University of Toronto.

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