science of us

Most People Are Ambivalent About Breaking Up Right Before They Do It

Photo: Jamie Grill/Getty Images

When it comes to breakups, the aftermath is the part that gets all the attention. Everyone more or less knows the drill: the wallowing, the rebounding, the carefully crafted Facebook posts designed to suggest that you’ve moved on. What no one really talks about, though, is the lead-up to the breakup, which can be just as gut-wrenching. Once it’s done, at least, you know for sure where things stand — but new research suggests that for most people, the process of actually getting there is filled with uncertainty and deep ambivalence.

In the first part of the study, published earlier this month in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, 447 volunteers filled out a survey about their current and former relationships and answered a series of open-ended questions like, “What are some reasons someone might give for wanting to stay with/leave a romantic partner?” Based on their answers, the authors — led by University of Utah sociologist Samantha Joel, who studies decision-making in romantic relationships — identified 27 different reasons for wanting to stay in a relationship and 23 for wanting to leave.

In the second part of the study, Joel and her colleagues recruited a new group of participants, all of whom were currently contemplating breaking things off with their spouse or the person they were dating, and compiled the 50 reasons from the previous round into a new questionnaire. This time, subjects were asked to mark any reasons, for staying or for leaving, that had factored into their thought process.

The key takeaway from the results: Most people selected multiple reasons from each category, meaning that they wanted to stick with their partner even as they wanted to cut ties at the same time. “Many participants were simultaneously motivated to both stay in their relationships and leave,” the study authors wrote,  “suggesting that ambivalence is a common experience for those who are thinking about ending their relationships.”

The study authors also found that the top reasons for wanting to end a relationship were the same regardless of marital status. The most common factors people checked off were emotional distance (feeling like their partner has checked out of the relationship), inequity (a power imbalance), a violation of expectations (like cheating), or an issue with some aspect of their partner’s personality. And across the board, attachment anxiety — or, as Joel puts it, “relationship insecurity that comes down to a fear of being rejected or let down” — was associated with stronger feelings of both wanting to stay and wanting to leave.

Reasons for staying, though, differed depending on whether the subjects were dating or married. Those in the former group mostly highlighted positive things like still having fun with their partner, continuing to enjoy aspects of their partner’s personality, and the emotional closeness they’ve cultivated. Married participants, on the other hand, were motivated to stay mostly for reasons of obligation, like the amount of time already invested, family responsibilities, a fear of uncertainty, and other more logistical barriers like sharing a home.

Overall, the study adds to an area that’s surprisingly neglected: When it comes to studying relationships, “a lot of the past research of breakups has been predictive, looking at what predicts who stays and who goes,” Joel says, rather than examining the decision-making process as it unfolds.

Joel’s research is based in part on the work of psychologist Caryl Rusbult’s classic investment model, which applies the concept of cost-benefit analysis to romantic relationships. “The investment model shows that two of the best predictors of staying with a partner are a satisfaction with and commitment to the relationship. But people have to consciously arrive at those assessments,” Joel says. Her research takes a closer look at how they get there, focusing on the specific pros and cons that people weigh in order to decide how satisfied and committed they really are.

“I’m interested in what specific pros have the potential to outweigh even serious cons,” Joel says, adding that “much of my work is really about what leads people to stay in bad relationships.” You may have been there — clinging stubbornly to some lame justification for why this person isn’t as awful as they seem, or struggling to muster up the guts to leave a relationship that’s perfect on paper long after the spark fizzled out. Breakups are messy, but the path to a breakup, where you have to battle conflicting instincts about the right choice, can be even messier.

Most People Are Ambivalent About Their Own Breakups