Mind & Body

Why Is Breaking Up So Hard? A Study Found a Surprising Reason

With the way some couples behave in the midst of a breakup, you might assume that the decision was easy: one person was human garbage, so the other person decided to strut away to a triumphant/defiant Kelly Clarkson song. But according to a 2017 study, that's rarely the way things go. Even while they're planning their exit strategy, most people continue feeling the pull to stay with their partner.

23 Ways to Leave Your Lover

For a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science in August 2017, University of Utah researchers first asked three groups of people, including people who had contemplated or were currently contemplating a breakup, to complete an anonymous survey. The survey asked the participants open-ended questions about reasons for both wanting to stay and wanting to leave their relationship. After divvying the answers into general categories, the researchers were left with a list of 27 reasons a person might want to stay in a relationship and 23 reasons they might want to leave.

The team turned those reasons into another survey and gave it to yet another group of people currently considering a breakup. Those people were either dating someone (for two years, on average) or married (for an average of nine years).

The participants rated each reason to stay or leave on a scale from 1 to 7. To determine how sure the participants were of their decision, the researchers checked their average ratings on each area — if their ratings were above the halfway point on both, they counted as ambivalent. About half of the participants fell into that category: they felt nearly as strongly about staying as they did about leaving. That's right. Your current relationship might be one coin-flip away from ending.

"What was most interesting to me was how ambivalent people felt about their relationships. They felt really torn," psychology professor and lead researcher Samantha Joel said in a press release. "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."

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Both the dating and married participants had similar reasons for breaking up: emotional distance, unfairness, dishonesty, and their partner's overall personality topped the list. But when it came to reasons to stay, the two groups were very different. People in dating relationships felt the desire to stay for the good parts of their partner's personality, emotional intimacy, and how much they enjoyed being with the person. Married people, on the other hand, said they'd stay because of investment, family responsibility, fear of uncertainty, and overall logistics. ("I love you for logistical reasons, baby.")

That may sound like marriage kills romance, but that's probably too harsh. Marriage, after all, is designed to keep two people together. The intermingling of finances, investments, and children requires security in a relationship, so there's no wonder that those same things are top-of-mind when a husband or wife contemplates divorce.

If you're wrestling with the decision to keep things going or break it off with a significant other, there's no right answer. But at least you know that many, many other people have struggled with the same conflicts you do. Breakups aren't a battle of good and evil; they're just two people trying to do what's best for each of them.

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Need some extra help? Check out "Getting Past Your Breakup: How to Turn a Devastating Loss into the Best Thing That Ever Happened to You" by Susan J. Elliot. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer October 30, 2017

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