Why – and how – do partners decide to break up? A new study investigates the reasons behind this complex decision-making process. The findings bring valuable insights into relationship satisfaction and decision-making.

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People have various reasons for staying together or deciding to break up, but the subjective experience of making that decision might be more agonizing than we think.

Researchers from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, in collaboration with scientists from the University of Toronto in Canada, set out to examine the reasons that inform the decision of either leaving or staying in a relationship and the subjective experience of this deliberating process.

The research consisted of two phases and was led by Prof. Samantha Joel, of the University of Utah. The findings were published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

In the first phase of the research, a diverse sample of participants was asked open-ended questions about the reasons why they would continue and the reasons why they would end a relationship.

The study examined three groups of respondents. The first group consisted of 135 undergraduate students who were asked about potential reasons why a person might decide to stay or leave a relationship.

In the second group, 137 undergraduate students who had contemplated a breakup at a time prior to the study were asked to provide answers to the open-ended questions.

The third group consisted of American Mechanical Turk workers who were themselves considering whether or not to break up at the time of the study.

The researchers created a coding scheme for reasons to stay and leave based on answer themes that reappeared throughout the three samples, leaving out an “uncodable category” for particularly ambiguous replies. This left the researchers with a total of 27 different reasons for staying and 23 reasons for leaving.

In the second phase of the study, Prof. Joel and colleagues used these reasons to draw up a questionnaire, which they then administered to another group of participants. These respondents were also deliberating whether or not to end the relationship they were in at the time of the study.

Also, this last group consisted of people who were either dating or married. Those who were in a dating relationship had been a couple for an average of 2 years, whereas the spouses had been married or together for 9 years, on average.

Both studies confirmed that overall, participants had similar pro and con reasons. The main reasons for wanting to stay were emotional intimacy, or feeling close to one’s partner, investment (which was a category that included a subset of reasons such as logistical barriers and habituation), and a feeling a commitment or obligation to their family.

By contrast, the main reasons for leaving involved the partner’s personality, breaches of trust (such as unfaithfulness or deceptiveness), and the partner’s withdrawal (manifested as the partner no longer being supportive or affectionate.)

The reasons for leaving were largely the same across the two groups – those dating and those who were married. However, there were differences between the two groups when it came to reasons for staying.

Partners who dated seemed to be focused on positive, so-called approach-based factors such as personality traits that they liked in their partner, the emotional closeness they felt they had, and the enjoyment they drew from the relationship.

Married partners, on the other hand, seemed more focused on constraints in their decision; they mentioned investment (including logistical barriers), family duty and responsibilities, and a fear of uncertainty.

Across all groups, approximately 50 percent of the participants reported a comparable number of reasons for both staying and leaving, indicating that ambivalence is a very common experience.

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.”

Prof. Samantha Joel

Speaking about the significance of the research, Prof. Joel says, “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.”

“Humans fall in love for a reason,” she adds. “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.”