A recent study confirms what conflicted lovers already knew: Breakin’ up is hard to do, often because feelings of ambivalence persist until the relationship finally dies.
According to “Wanting to Stay and Wanting to Go: Unpacking the Content and Structure of the Relationship Stay/Leave Decision Processes,” published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, people who seriously consider ending a relationship tend to experience conflicting emotions about whether or not to initiate the breakup. These feelings of ambivalence tend to stem from factors related to relationship satisfaction and the level of commitment one feels towards their partner.
So rather than a single incident causing everything to fall apart, as shown in the famous Vine below, partners considering a breakup are more likely to feel a range of emotions over a protracted decision-making process. It’s rare that we reach a point of 100 percent certainty before dumping someone.
The first half of the study surveyed individuals about what qualitative factors they would consider when hypothetically deciding whether or not to end a relationship, and the second half of the study quantified those factors. Participants considering ending their relationships then responded with their reasoning based on the positives and negatives provided by the respondents in the study’s initial sample pools.
This particular study is unique in that the participants surveyed in the latter half of the study were actively considering ending their relationships, whether they were dating or married. Previous studies that examined why people break up followed up with those who had already ended their relationship, which researchers said could impact their perceived motives for breaking up.
“The reasons provided are likely to have been reconstructed post-hoc,” the study said. “Examining how people find meaning in the wake of relationship dissolution is valuable in its own right (e.g., Park, 2010); however, these narratives do not necessarily reflect the deliberative processes that preceded the breakup.”
Both married and unmarried individuals reported feelings of ambivalence when it came to considering a breakup. And that ambivalence can have consequences. “Over and above whether a person ultimately chooses to stay or leave, the degree of ambivalence experienced regarding the choice may have important psychological implications for the decision-maker,” the study said, citing other research on the negative psychological impact of mixed emotions. “Ambivalence is a deeply unpleasant experience with negative consequences for health and well-being.”
The top reasons that pulled people, regardless of marital status, towards ending their relationship included emotional distance, a power imbalance between partners, problems with their partner’s personality, and “violation of expectations,” such as infidelity.
But reasons to stay with partners diverged depending on the nature of the relationship. Respondents who were unmarried felt most compelled by the positive aspects of their partner’s personality, the enjoyment derived from the relationship, and intimacy. Married respondents, on the other hand, said that it was a level of investment in their relationship, familial obligations, and logistical barriers.
So the next time you find yourself wading through a slew of inner turmoil as you consider dumping your significant other, don’t worry — it’s totally normal. But just because it’s normal doesn’t make it any easier, does it?