The arguments for sticking it out are surprisingly different for people who are married versus those who are just dating. 

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated August 22, 2017
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A new study takes a close look at why people decide to jump ship from—or stick with—romantic relationships they’re on the fence about. And the reasons for or against breaking up are surprisingly different for those who are married versus just dating.

The research, published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, analyzed anonymous survey responses from men and women currently in relationships, including some who were considering cutting ties with their partners.

Using those responses, the study authors came up with a list of 27 reasons why people might want to stay in their relationships, and 23 reasons why they might leave. Then they asked another group of participants—who were also debating breakups of their own—for their thoughts on all of those reasons.

Across the board, people who were married (an average of nine years) and those who were dating (an average of two years) agreed on many of the major reasons to leave a relationship: Both groups said they’d go because of issues with a partner’s personality, a breach of trust, or because a partner had withdrawn.

But married and dating people had different reasons for why they’d stay. Those who were still technically single cited mainly positive things about their partnerships—like the fact that they enjoyed the company and the emotional intimacy they shared, or that they felt attraction toward their partner.

Those who were married, on the other hand, tended to cite what the researchers call constraints or avoidance-based reasons. These include investment in the relationship, family responsibilities, fear of uncertainty, and logistical barriers.

In other words, while single people had plenty of checks in the “pros” column for staying together, married people mainly just had checks in the “cons” column against splitting up.

That was pretty striking to lead author Samantha Joel, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Utah. “I think it goes to show that leaving a relationship gets harder and harder as the relationship gets longer and more established,” she says. It also raises the question of how often people stay together for reasons that aren’t in their best interest, she adds.

Joel was also surprised at the number of people in the study—about half of the those who were considering a breakup—who said they had a lot of good reasons to both stay and to leave. “They weren’t indifferent, meaning they didn’t have weak motivations either way,” she says. “Rather, they were ambivalent and felt really torn, because they felt strongly in both directions.”

Because these decisions can take a serious toll on people’s emotional health, Joel says she wants to further study what makes people get into relationships in the first place—and how closely they look for red flags and “deal-breaker” incompatibilities early on. “I want to know if there might be an element of prevention there, to help people get out of these relationships before they get in too deep,” she says.

And while she can’t give people advice on whether they should get out of their current relationship or not, Joel says her research may stimulate future research and help therapists working with couples.

She also wants people to know that uncertainties about their romantic relationships are common. “Breakup decisions are really difficult,” she says, “and if you’re struggling with a decision like this, you’re not alone.”