Jack and Jill have been dating exclusively for about a year. In the beginning, it seemed like a match made in heaven, but for some time now the relationship has been lackluster. At least, that’s how Jack feels about it. He often daydreams about what his life would be like if he weren’t still attached to Jill. It’s not that he dislikes her. It’s just that he doesn’t think they’re right for each other. He can also tell she’s quite devoted to him, and he’s sure she’d be terribly hurt if he left her. So for the time being at least, Jack stays with Jill.
Such a scenario is not uncommon. But why do people stay even though they want to leave? This is the question that University of Utah psychologist Samantha Joel and her colleagues explored in a recent article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
First, Joel and colleagues consider several current theories that try to explain how people make a decision to stay in a relationship or leave it. The most influential theory of interpersonal relations is interdependence theory, first proposed by psychologists Harold Kelley and John Thibaut in 1959. Interdependence theory proposes that people weigh the costs and benefits of being in a relationship. They stay as long as the benefits outweigh the costs, and they leave when the costs outweigh the benefits. This simple model does a reasonably good job of predicting stay/leave decisions, but only if you fully account for the all costs and benefits, which isn’t easy because we’re dealing with people’s emotions, and these are notoriously difficult to quantify.
A widely accepted revision of interdependence theory is the investment model, which tries to account more precisely for the costs and benefits of staying or leaving. In particular, the investment model posits three factors that people take into consideration when they’re weighing a stay/leave decision:
- Relationship satisfaction. This refers to the general feeling that the benefits outweigh the costs. As long as you’re satisfied with the relationship, you’ll stay. Note that this part of the model is the same as interdependence theory.
- Investments. This refers to both tangible and intangible assets that you’ve contributed to the relationship. The longer a couple has been married, the less likely it is that they’ll get divorced. At least in part this is because of investments like a house, children, friendships, stock portfolios, and so on, that would be lost or disrupted if the relationship were broken. Furthermore, people also count time spent together, shared emotional experiences, and so on, which only have meaning within the relationship. In sum, even if your relationship satisfaction is low, you’re not likely to leave if your investments in the relationship are high.
- Quality of alternatives. When people do leave relationships, it’s often because they’ve either already lined up an alternative partner, or else they believe they can find someone better than their current partner on the mating market. For example, a corporate executive will divorce his spouse of 20 years to marry his lovely young secretary. Likewise, an attractive young woman will leave her deadbeat boyfriend, confident she can do better than him. The young, the beautiful, and the wealthy have alternatives, but the rest of us have few options, and so we often stay in unsatisfying relationships because it’s the best we think we can do.
As the researchers point out, interdependence theory and the investment model assume people are rational and make decisions that are in their own best interests. However, plenty of research in the psychology of decision making shows this simply isn’t true.
For one thing, emotions and cognitive biases often lead people to make decisions that aren’t good for them, at least in the long run. Poor dietary choices, drug use, and sedentary lifestyle are all common examples of choices that feel good in the moment but have devastating consequences downstream. Likewise, voters will often elect politicians who enact policies that hurt them economically because those officials endorse key issues like abortion or immigration that people have strong emotions about.
For another thing, even when the option that promotes self-interest is clear, people often choose otherwise. As Joel and colleagues point out, this is frequently the case when we interact with others. We take other people’s feelings into account, and we often sacrifice our own benefit for their sake. This is true not only for close relationships like friends and family but also in our interactions with strangers. (Why would you ever hold a door open for another person if your goal was to maximize your own self-interest?)
The fact that people are not self-interested maximizers is demonstrated in the dictator game, a laboratory procedure involving two participants. The experimenter gives one participant—the dictator—a sum of money and tells them they can either keep all the money or give some of it to their partner. Very few people keep all the money for themselves, and even children as young as two years old will share with their partner. Joel and colleagues reasoned that people likely also consider their partner’s situation when making a decision to stay or leave.
To test this idea, they recruited nearly 4,000 people who were in committed relationships but were thinking about leaving to participate in a two-part study. In Part 1, the participants completed a lengthy survey that assessed their feelings about the relationship in terms of the three components of the investment model: relationship satisfaction, investment, and quality of alternatives.
Participants also answered questions regarding two other factors that the researchers thought might play a role in a stay/leave decision:
- Partner dependence. Respondents were asked how committed they thought their partner was to the relationship and how distressed they thought their partner would be if they broke up with them. It’s believed that high partner dependence can make a relationship feel valuable even if satisfaction isn’t high.
- Communal strength. This is the degree to which you place a high priority on meeting the needs of your partner. It’s believed that high communal strength can also make it harder to leave a relationship because of concern for the partner’s welfare.
In Part 2 of the study, participants received a short, weekly survey by email. The first question was: “Are you and your partner still together?” If the response was “no,” the participant indicated whether the decision was their own, their partner’s, or mutual. At the end of ten weeks, 18% had reported a breakup, while 82% were still together.
Even after all the reasons for staying or leaving as posited by the investment model were accounted for, there were still those who’d remained in the relationship even though they were unhappy. As expected, partner dependence was an important factor in these cases, but only if the person was high in communal strength. In other words, people who make meeting their partner’s needs a priority in the relationship will also find it difficult to leave that relationship for fear of hurting the other person.
In our opening example, Jack wants to leave Jill but he won’t because he doesn’t want to cause her distress. He believes she still wants to stay in the relationship, but he doesn’t know for sure because he has never asked. It could very well be that she’s just as unhappy with the relationship as he is.
When we try to read our partner’s mind and expect them to read ours, we set ourselves up for unhappiness. Conversations about whether to end a relationship are extremely difficult, but without an open and honest discussion, both partners will have to deal with the misery of putting on pretenses indefinitely. After a heart-to-heart talk, Jack and Jill may mutually decide it’s time to starting dating other people. And who knows? That same conversation may help them understand the value of their relationship—and give them the resolve to make it better.
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