Weighing up whether to stay or go in your relationship is often filled with ambivalence and uncertainty. This often results because you are simultaneously experiencing a desire to stay AND leave the relationship, which can be very confusing, frustrating, and leave people feeling torn, frozen and caught in limbo. And while ending a romantic relationship is one of the most stressful things that people go through, the ambivalence is not always necessarily resolved when one does break up.
Another way to think about uncertainty
While you might be noticing uncertainty in your relationship at the moment, it is everywhere. Everything, except this very moment, is uncertain. The human desire to have certainty makes sense, as we want to feel prepared. This can take up a lot of headspace, anxiety and energy as we worry, fantasise and run different scenarios through our heads trying to pre-plan so as to avoid some kind of hurt. But you simply cannot know the future. It is not serving you to try to know, and it is consuming so much mental energy. It can therefore be helpful to notice it as it comes up (the uncertainty and your worries), but then let it go and focus more on the present in your life. Trust that whatever comes up in the future, you will be able to deal with it. This is where commitment comes in. Commitment is about choice. And it’s not just choosing your partner. It’s about choosing the relationship, day after day. It is a leap of faith, even if at times we are uncertain. This short video Dan Ariely talks about perspective, keeping options open and commitment. The Gottman's also note that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side (as in other options often look more attractive), but rather, the grass is greener where you water it.
Pause and Reflect
When feeling uncertain, it can be helpful to take some pressure off yourself for a little while. Say to yourself, "I am not going to make any major decisions around the relationship for the next 90 days". Then see how that feels.
It can also be helpful to reflect:
Have either of us committed any major boundary violations and not done the requisite repair work? This includes infidelities, physical or emotional abuse, lies, secrets and addictions. These destroy safety and trust. If any of these have happened, has there been healing?
You may struggle to believe you are lovable due to past hurts. You may fear that people will disappoint you. Is there some individual work that either one of you need to do?
Is there some work you can do as a couple to help solve your issues?
Are there things that you've not been expressing, or fears that repeatedly come up for you which you've not shared?
Are there foundational differences/choices in life paths between the two of you that make a future together incompatible?
Assistant Clinical Professor, Alexandra Solomon, did some informal research on social media to ask people - If you’ve stood at a relational crossroads, what helped you get clear?, and from this devised 85 strategies and reflection questions which might be helpful on your journey, including focusing on your values, listening to the wisdom of your body, honouring yourself, focusing on "future you", as well as being diligent so as not to have regrets.
Research notes these factors influence decisions to stay or go. While recent research indicate that relationship satisfaction/dissatisfaction is a factor in deciding to stay or leave, it also identifies that the quality of alternatives is a strong reason to leave, and love is strong reason to stay. It is also a lot more complicated than that, with the figure below indicating some of the main aspects people weigh up in their decisions to stay or leave.
Source: Machia LV, Ogolsky BG. The Reasons People Think About Staying and Leaving Their Romantic Relationships: A Mixed-Method Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2021;47(8):1279-1293. doi:10.1177/0146167220966903
The Gottman's note that there are six signs which indicate a relationship's demise - and so it might be helpful to evaluate for yourself whether this is true for you.
The story of "Us" becomes coloured more negatively and people recall more of the bad than the good times. Also, the four horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling) are more prevalent, and people begin to assume the worst in each other
Fondness and Admiration is weakened - there is less warmth affection and respect for each other
"Me-ness" dominates "We-ness" - people tend to start focusing less on them as a couple - their solidarity and togetherness, and more on what they want as an individual (ignoring their partner's needs)
Love Maps become vague - knowledge of each other's internal worlds (what makes your partner tick - the basis of relational friendship) become impersonal and less specific
Relationship struggles push the couple apart - there is less of a sense of pride or learning from or overcoming past difficult experiences together and a greater negative perspective on how those difficulties have weakened their bond
The relationship falls short of your expectations - the story becomes more about disappointments in their partner and choices, as well as cynicism about the future
It is very important to note that making the decision to stay or leave your romantic relationship is highly subjective and personal.
It is your decision. It can feel tempting to lean on others' opinions/perspectives (often these come from well-meaning friends, relatives or even counsellors), but, in the end you are the one who needs to look deep within your own heart and decide what is right for you. We do have choice - often it helps to be reminded of that. Other than the choice to Leave, we can also decide to:
Solve the problem or change what we can about the situation (this is where couples counselling can be helpful and we can work on techniques to solve conflict in a helpful manner, strengthen your friendship, fondness and admiration, and work on creating more shared meaning and 'we-ness')
Change how we look at the situation
Radically accept the situation 'as is' (100% make peace with it)
Do nothing - remain miserable
Make it worse
In couples counselling I often talk to people about their willingness to make changes on their side of the fence, and when we see both partners being willing to do the work, the chances of improving their relationship increases significantly. However, in saying that, sometimes people's relational resilience has been worn down over the years, and so much resentment has built up that it becomes difficult to make changes or believe that their partner's changes will stick long-term - their negative perspective of the relationship (their "Story of Us" switch) has been flipped to mostly "On".
Remember: Adult intimate relationships are a choice. It is important to note that while it takes two people to make a relationship work, it only takes one person to call it off in an adult relationship. In romantic relationships we are not dependent on each other (like a child-parent relationship), and so it is completely OK to make that decision if you feel this relationship is no longer working for you. It doesn't make you a bad person to do so - you can still do so amicably and respectfully, and if there are children involved, you can continue to co-parent respectfully.
Parking the decision and giving couples counselling a go. To counter not having regrets, I also often talk to people about parking the decision (to stay/go) for a few months down the line, and really giving couples counselling a go. That way, if it doesn't work out, it can be easier to accept that you've tried to make it work and be more at peace with your decision. (This only works if you are really willing to do the work. If you are doing this as a box-ticking exercise to alleviate your own guilt/conscience, it does not work).
Therapeutic separation. For other couples we can look at introducing an interim 'therapeutic separation'. The goal of this is to get some 'breathing room' and reduce the emotional and negative reactivity in the relationship - usually this lasts for 3-6 months. Time apart allows each one to think more clearly and examine their thoughts and feelings. This also provides a framework where we have clearly identified individual goals, often then with the broader aim of coming back together to work on the relationship.
Compartmentalise ending aspects of your relationship. One of the other ways is to think about how you might want to end some aspect/s of your partnership.
Here we need to work on tailoring solutions to suit your needs as a couple and this might look very different for different people. For example, it might be negotiating that you are ending your sexual partnership (and getting that fulfilled elsewhere) and continuing your other partnerships while living in separate rooms in the same house.
Final words. It takes a lot of self-reflection, and a major decision like this should not be rushed. By the same token, this is often a very difficult time for your partner too, particularly if they know that you are considering ending it. It can feel like torture and very disempowering when you want the relationship to continue, but your partner is weighing up his/her choices. It can be helpful to talk through this with a professional couples counsellor so that you consider all your options and make an informed choice to stay, go, or work on this together for a happier future together.
Disclaimer: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be taken as counselling/therapy advice or used as a substitute for such. You should always speak to your own counsellor.