You meet someone, you date for some time, and then for whatever reason, you make the realization that this person is not right for you. But for some reason, even with that realization, leaving them is far from easy. Why is it so hard to end a relationship you feel isn't working for you?
According to a 2017 study, conducted by the University of Utah, published in the Social Psychology and Personality Science journal, there's a scientific basis for why deciding to end a relationship is so ridiculously hard. Participants took a survey consisting of open-ended questions on specific reasons for why they would stay or leave. Some were married, some were dating, and some were even in the middle of deciding whether or not they should break up with their partner.
Researchers resolved that there are about 27 basic reasons for wanting to stay in a relationship, such as emotional intimacy, investment, and a sense of obligation. There are also 23 basic reasons for wanting to leave, such as issues with a partner's personality, breach of trust, and partner withdrawal.
According to Anita A. Chlipala, licensed marriage and family therapist, it's tough to say there's just one factor that determines whether a couple sticks or splits. But often, it comes down to couples realizing they just don't know how to make a relationship work.
"When they can see where they're both accountable for the state of their relationship (versus having thought it was their partner's fault or thinking things would be better with someone else), then that can really make a difference," Chlipala says.
The Psychology Behind Why It's So Hard To Decide
Nearly half of the participants in the study had good reasons to both stay and go. For the most part, people felt super ambivalent about their relationships even if the decision seemed pretty obvious. According to the lead author, psychology professor Samantha Joel, most people have standards and dealbreakers that often go out the window when they meet someone. And, from an evolutionary perspective, our ancestors probably believed it was most important to find a partner than finding the right one.
According to John Mayer, clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand, there are several "fundamental reasons" behind why people have trouble ending relationships. For instance, one reason centers around the idea that we don't equate ending a relationship with real loss, which is a major problem because a breakup technically is a major loss. In fact, a 2019 study published in the journal PLoS One found that a breakup could bring about depression-like symptoms in people in the same way sudden loss would.
"You are dealing with loss and you need to apply coping mechanisms to help you resolve this," he says. "There needs to be a resolution or closure to the ending just like when someone dies in your life. But, as opposed to a death, where you have no control over that closure of ‘being with the person,’ the loss of a relationship has many doors that can remain open which are traps toward giving a relationship a successful ending."
It's also difficult to end an unsatisfying relationship when you're not just thinking about your own needs. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people are less likely to initiate a breakup when they believe their partner is dependent on them or would be completely devastated to see the relationship end. In other words, they would sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of their partner, which isn't really the best reason to stay.
34 Questions To Ask Yourself If You're On The Fence About Ending Things
Regardless of the reasons why you're thinking of ending a relationship, making the decision to actually do it is difficult. So according to Chlipala, Mayer, Pasko, Rosalind Sedacca, CLC, dating and relationship coach, Davida Rappaport, spiritual counselor and dating expert, and Stef Safran, matchmaker and dating expert, here are 34 questions you should ask yourself if you're having trouble deciding what to do:
- Have I been feeling unsafe, intimidated or threatened in this relationship?
- Have I been criticized, degraded or disrespected on a consistent basis?
- Have I been regularly interrogated about who I talk to, where I go, how much money I spend and related issues?
- Have I been walking on eggshells because I’m fearful or uncomfortable speaking my mind in this one-sided relationship?
- Does my partner always blame me or others for their problems or things that go wrong?
- Is my partner excessively possessive, calling or texting constantly, visiting expectantly to check up on me?
- Am I feeling “sucked in” to this relationship and can’t come up for air?
- Does my partner make me feel inadequate?
- How am I helping the other person grow in their life?
- How can I end this relationship without leaving doors open?
- What did I learn from this relationship?
- How did we grow from this relationship?
- How is this ending going to improve my life? The other person’s life?
- Does my partner keep their word or promises?
- Does my partner take responsibility?
- Do I want them holding my hand on my death bed?
- Can my partner become financially responsible?
- Does this person make me happy or would I be happier by myself?
- Have I asked for my needs to be met directly and respectfully or have I assumed my partner can take a hint?
- Am I expecting my partner to be the only one who changes or have I cleaned up my side of the street?
- What's the true motivation behind ending a relationship?
- What am I missing?
- Do I want to break things off because I don't want to move forward with them?
- Am I interested in starting something with someone else?
- Am I being fair to them or am I stringing them along?
- Will this decision make me feel better about myself?
- Am I running away from facing my deep fears?
- Do we have the same values and goals for the future?
- Am I just super pissed off right now or do I want to breakup for real?
- Does this person bring me joy?
- Will I regret this five years from now?
- Have I tried everything?
- Am I ready to walk-away or am I going to end it and get back together?
- Can I handle being single?
"It'll always get a little bit worse before it gets better," Karolina Pasko, registered clinical therapist, tells Bustle. "In relationships, we often face a mental wall when it seems like nothing will take us out from misery. But those who find the courage to look beyond the self-centered pain are the ones who learn from their relationships."
At the end of the day, no one can decide what you should do about your relationship but you. But if you really take the time to think it over, you'll make the right decision for you.
Joel, S., MacDonald, G., & Page-Gould, E. (2017). Wanting to Stay and Wanting to Go. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2017; https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1948550617722834
Joel, S., Impett, E. A., Spielmann, S. S., & MacDonald, G. (2018). How interdependent are stay/leave decisions? On staying in the relationship for the sake of the romantic partner. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000139
Verhallen, A.M., Renken, R.J., Marsman, J., & Horst, G.J. (2019). Romantic relationship breakup: An experimental model to study effects of stress on depression (-like) symptoms. PLoS One, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0217320
Anita A. Chlipala, licensed marriage and family therapist
Dr. John Mayer, clinical psychologist at Doctor On Demand
Rosalind Sedacca, dating and relationship coach
Davida Rappaport, spiritual counselor and dating expert
Stef Safran, matchmaker and dating expert
Karolina Pasko, registered clinical therapist