SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
So you’ve lost that loving feeling—is your relationship worth salvaging, or is it time to call it quits?
Four women explain why they ended things with their ex amid relationship ambivalence
Romantic uncertainty often presents as a swinging pendulum, a back-and-forth between reasons to tough it out as well as those to pick up and leave.
The nagging internal cycle that ensues may leave you choosing between buying a new sofa with your partner and funnelling your money into an escape fund. Or you may find yourself scrolling through real-estate listings, looking for the perfect little nest for a newly single woman, all the while planning the next holiday with your in-laws. You may even contemplate what romantic future might await you outside of your existing relationship—is there someone out there who can revive the butterflies in your stomach?
Relationship ambivalence is more common than one might think. In a 2017 study out of The University of Utah, researchers surveyed adults who were considering leaving their partner and found that approximately 50 percent demonstrated pronounced relationship ambivalence; in other words, they felt they had strong reasons both to stay in the relationship and to end it. The top reasons to stay included the comfort of emotional intimacy and a sense of obligation. Among the top reasons to go were concerns about their partner’s emotional withdrawal, a breach of trust and personality issues. Furthermore, married respondents indicated that external constraints—such as financial dependence, a shared home and concerns about children—played a key role in confusing their decision, while those who were simply dating were more likely to be influenced by positive reasons to stay, such as attraction to their partner and enjoyment of time spent with that person.
“It’s common that people have good reasons to break up with their partner and good reasons to stay,” says Samantha Joel, the study’s lead author and a psychology professor now at London, Ont.’s Western University. “It’s very common to feel torn, and we know investment is a major factor. The longer a relationship, the more tied you are to your partner and the harder it is to break away.”
Daphne de Marneffe, a San Francisco Bay Area–based clinical psychologist and the author of The Rough Patch: Marriage and the Art of Living Together, sees ambiva- lence as part of human nature and says the real danger occurs when couples won’t face their issues and stay in a state of limbo. “People can get to a point in a relationship where the structure works but the emotional part doesn’t, and they feel worried to confront it,” she says. “When they don’t confront it, they stop reaching out, stop depending and stop wanting. They stop feeling close.”
Chronic relationship ambivalence can result in more than just confusion. A 2014 study published in Psychological Science showed that marital ambivalence may be detrimental to cardiovascular health—presumably because relationship uncertainty causes anxiety and, in turn, risk of cardiovascular disease. After all, much of the rhetoric surrounding marriage—the notion of soulmates, for example—stems from our desire for certainty.
But de Marneffe says it’s a mistake to view human attachment as a fait accompli. “With little kids, you don’t just hug them once; you have to hug them every day. It’s the same in adult relationships,” she says. “Unless couples can keep turning toward each other for comfort and support, it will be hard to feel close and loving. Understandably, a frost sets in that contributes to relationship ambivalence.” In many cases, people become conflicted about even wanting to try, but the most important piece of managing this tug-of-war, says de Marneffe, is that “it takes guts to be vulnerable, to open yourself to wanting love and to have the hard conversations about whether that’s possible. If you can start to go down that road, you really can feel [that connection] again—even if you haven’t felt it in 10 years.”
Relationship ambivalence can feel like an emotional seesaw. Whether the uncertainty is primarily due to internal conflicts, relationship conflicts or both, you need to work simultaneously on yourself and your partnership to gain clarity as well as to understand—and live with— the decision you’re making. Here are some firsthand accounts from women who made the decision to go—and how they feel now that they’ve come out on the other side.