Q/A: Let’s say you have the OPPOSITE problem of pandemic dating…you’re stuck with an individual and you’re not sure whether it’s time to say adios or keep working together on your relationship. The year has been hard and stressful for you both…you and your partner have been arguing more and more, and it seems like it might be time to call it quits. Should you stay, or should you go? Here’s what we say:

People choose many reasons to stay with their partner, whether they are out of love or closeness with that partner, or simply not having any alternatives besides that partner. (1, 2) The relationship literature actually provides some insight into deciding whether or not to break up. In one study, researchers were able to code 27 different reasons for wanting to stay in a relationship, as well as 23 reasons for wanting to leave. (3) Those with attachment anxiety correlated highly with certain notions of wanting to stay (companionship, dependence) and also wanting to leave (breach of trust, partner withdrawal), however, nearly half of the participants expressed higher than midpoint motivation in both directions, which only reflect the difficulty of this decision. (3).

That’s not all to consider. A study was done to examine relationship break-ups on psychological distress and life satisfaction. (4) In the study, experiencing break-ups were also associated with an increase in psychological distress and decline in life satisfaction. In these cases, the deeper the relationship was (living together and making future plans) were associated with larger declines in life satisfaction. (4). What does this mean? That a break-up can result in mild to moderate life dissatisfaction, especially for those who were in deeper relationships. Sounds like a break-up isn’t the move, right? 

Maybe not. Back in the first mentioned study, an important suggestion from the results was that people who were ambivalent in their decision to stay or leave (having a strong motivation either way) might experience anxiety, discomfort, and negative health outcomes in their relationships. (3) And if this ambivalence leads to a person leaving, doubt can consume their mind and impede on the healing process. (3)

Should you stay or go? Whether or not you do, many people experience difficulty with this question. Although the literature suggests that you will experience heartbreak and psychological distress after a break up, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad path to take. It can be painful, yes, but can also lead to the start of a beautiful chapter in your life. The most important thing is to ensure that your decision is a firm one, as the ambiguity that can result from considering whether you should stay or leave can be detrimental, and might even be more detrimental than a clear break up/clear choice to stay together.

  1. Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Smollan, D. (1992). Inclusion of other in the self scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 596–612.
  2. Rusbult, C. E. (1980). Commitment and satisfaction in romantic associations: A test of the investment model. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16, 172–186.
  3. Joel, S., MacDonald, G., & Page-Gould, E. (2017). Wanting to stay and wanting to go. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9(6), 631–644. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550617722834 
  4. Rhoades, G. K., Kamp Dush, C. M., Atkins, D. C., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2011). Breaking up is hard to do: The impact of unmarried relationship dissolution on Mental Health and Life Satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 25(3), 366–374. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023627

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