Stay or Leave? Every Relationship’s Million Dollar Question
Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. Ph.D.
— October 2021 — Ever wonder if your relationship is right for you?
When I give talks about relationships, people have lots of questions. But, one is easily the most common: How do I know if this relationship is right for me?
It’s every relationship’s million-dollar question.
This same question comes in many forms: “How do I know if my partner is right for me?” “Is it time to move on in my relationship?” “Will I be able to know if this relationship is what’s best for me?” “Should I stay with my partner?” “How will I know when I should call it quits?” and “What does my relationship’s future hold?”
They’re all great questions because they’re all the right things to ask of your relationship. Everyone deserves a great relationship, and we need to get this right. We all implicitly know how meaningful relationships are and that they impact every part of our lives. We need answers.
Because the stakes are high, we find ourselves torn between two powerful motivations:
We don’t want to be alone, and we don’t want to settle.
Our problem is that it’s easy to know what we want from our relationship (i.e., to be happy and fulfilled), but it’s hard to know exactly what we have. Relationships are complicated, which makes deciphering them difficult. The result is doubt. Initially, in our relationship, we wonder, “Does this person like me?” “Am I really in love?”
Later, we second-guess ourselves, “Are they really ‘The One’?” “Is this relationship right for me?” Eventually, we worry, “Am I settling?” “Can my relationship be better?” and even “What am I doing wrong?”
Although doubts are common, it doesn’t mean they’re harmless. A study of 464 recently married spouses revealed that in two out of three couples, at least one person had doubts about the relationship (Lavner et al., 2012). When women had more doubts, it was linked to higher divorce. (That was true even when controlling for a bunch of other influences like current satisfaction, whether their parents were divorced, and personality factors.)
You may be experiencing a relationship imposter phenomenon, which occurs when you aren’t sure despite signs that your relationship is strong. You’re fearful and hesitant. Perhaps, it all seems too good to be sure, or you may feel there are issues you aren’t noticing. Cold feet and doubts can undermine the best relationships. But here’s the catch, the doubts you have may be unfounded, or they may be completely legitimate. It’s hard to know for sure, but there are a few ways to feel more confident.
How Do You Figure It All Out?
Weigh Your Reasons – As you know, relationships are complicated. That means the answer is also complicated. Research shows1 there are 27 key reasons to stay in a relationship and 23 reasons to leave. People are conflicted. Half of the participants reported being inclined to stay with the relationship, but those same people also reported an inclination to leave. There’s a lot to consider. However, reviewing the lists can help you focus on the issues many people consider most important.
Chart the Ups & Downs – We tend to live in the moment, but to reveal our relationship’s future, it’s more helpful to recognize how our relationship changes over time. When researchers had participants gauge their commitment to wed (or how likely they were to marry their partner), they found that certain patterns (more partner-focused) revealed a greater chance of relationship success. In contrast, others (lots of ups & downs) spelled doom. Tracking those ebbs and flows for yourself can help you see bigger patterns and if you’re headed for marriage.
15 Questions – The absolute best way to gauge a relationship may be to take a full battery of long and involved tests that assess every facet of your relationship. Frankly, that’s a bit impractical. However, gut reactions can also be revealing, particularly if you’re reacting to science-based questions about your relationship. These 15 yes/no questions each rely on the established science behind what makes for successful relationships, and your answers can help you better understand your relationship’s future.
The Best Friend Test – This one is straightforward. Answer this question, “Is your partner your best friend?” Hopefully, the answer is “yes.” More broadly, when you think about what you expect from your best friend and use similar standards for your relationship partner.
Flip a Coin – Want a seemingly odd but helpful way to decide your relationship’s fate? Flip a coin. Seriously. If you’re wondering whether it’s time to end your relationship, flipping a coin can provide you with the insight you need. When people made break-up decisions this way, they reported being happy with the outcome. Plus, a willingness to rely on a coin flip is fairly revealing on its own.
What If You Want To Work It Out?
More often than not, we’ll decide to stay in our current relationship and try to make it work. If you choose to go this route, it’s worth implementing a relationship maintenance plan to help you beat boredom and see the bright spots. You can also set your relationship up for success by implementing seven critical relationship resolutions. Sometimes that will mean arguing more, not less, anticipating sources of conflict, doing a better job of making your partner feel heard, and providing more support (but not in ways your partner notices). Finally, here are four secrets to successful relationships.
Partners are imperfect, and relationships are flawed. That makes definitively knowing what’s best for you and your relationship extremely difficult. Relationships are often complicated and confusing. Though easy solutions are appealing, it’s essential to be skeptical of oversimplifications. No one strategy will provide you with all of the answers you need.
Hopefully, by carefully considering several of the approaches here, you can get a better sense of where your relationship is going. Whatever your relationship’s future holds, you should follow your heart, but you should also remember to take some science with you.
A version of this article originally appeared here psychologytoday.com