So you've lost that loving feeling—is your relationship worth saving, or is it time to call it quits?
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 ambivalence 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.
Relationship duration: Nine years total; three living together
"Early in the relationship, I assumed we argued so much because we had such a passionate connection. Later, I felt that I was in a relationship with someone I loved but didn't always like. "We moved to Canada together, which made me feel stuck with him because I'd made these big decisions for him. Ultimately, there were two things keeping us together: I was really in love with him, and I didn't know if I'd ever love someone else that much. Women are often made to believe that the love of a man is the most validating experience you can have—why give that up? "I struggled with deep ambivalence throughout the relationship, but only in the last three years did I think about ending it. The final push came one morning when we were fighting after he lied to me. He'd made separate plans with a friend and with me, and then said he never promised to hang out with me. That day, I realized I didn't want to be with someone like that. We had been together for so long that I couldn't imagine my life without him, but I enjoyed figuring out who I am on my own. I didn't realize how constricted I had felt. "Even the best relationship will go through periods of uncertainty. But I realize now I could have said that this relationship doesn't make me feel good, that I don't like who I am in this relationship, and that would be a good metric for not being in it."
Relationship duration: 18 years total; 13 married
"My husband is a good guy and a great dad, but we had grown into roommates or siblings. Our relationship was incredibly dull. We didn't do anything together or connect, and I was very unfulfilled. He's deeply loyal, kind, responsible and dependable, and I figured the other stuff wouldn't matter. And then it did. "I thought about ending it for four years, and the indecision became unbearable. Having a child made breaking up the family a very difficult decision. Most of my friends and family had no idea because I just kept it to myself. I did all of these things like therapy and a career change to make myself happier, but it just pushed us further apart. I had a lot of insomnia, anxiety and guilt. "We finally agreed to separate in January. We'd been to therapy, and the issues had been on the table for a long time, so he knew I was unhappy. We both agreed it wasn't working, and he understood why I wanted to separate. I was a little angry, but mostly I was very, very sad. We're still living in the house, and our son doesn't know yet. We wrote up an agreement instead of getting lawyers. We're still a family. I'm looking forward to the next chapter. I've realized I want all of the things my husband brought to the table, but I also need more."
Relationship duration: Seven years total; six living together
"After living apart for six weeks, I broke up with him. He's a supportive, loving partner, but we're different. I'm social, outgoing and community-oriented, and he's quieter, kind of aloof and doesn't have a large circle of friends. "The ambivalence had been there for a long time. I'd be out without him and having a really good time, and then I'd be hit with this sudden realization that he's not right for me—but then I'd go home. Our life was steady and stable; our families are connected, and we have a dog. We would talk about getting married and having kids. "My friends never thought he was right for me—not because he's not a nice guy but because they didn't think he let me shine. For a long time, I'd been wondering if there was someone who might be a better fit for me. "I've become more financially independent over the past few years, and that had made it possible for me to think about leaving him. But it's scary when you're comfortable and you don't know what the next step is. At first, I wasn't sure breaking up was the right decision. I was very scared and sad but relieved to not be in limbo anymore. "Now, more than two months later, I'm sure it was the right thing. I'm living on my own and seeing someone new—and I feel lighter than I have in a long time."
Relationship duration: Nine years total; four living together
"I met my ex at a work conference, and we both had a lot of the same niche interests, including living abroad. We moved to Central America together, and it seemed perfect. But I wasn't happy; I had this constant ennui. "My ambivalence about ending our relationship was caught up in the idea that it should work. I thought a relationship is supposed to be a constant struggle, and I felt I had invested so much that I couldn't possibly let go. As a woman, I found it really hard to leave and start over in my 30s because society tells us that we're screwed if we do. "I finally broke up with him last fall, after I went to a friend's wedding and I heard the bride and groom saying things to each other that I couldn't imagine being said in my relationship. Once it was done, we both cried, but it felt like the absolute right thing to do. A friend had once referred to my ex as a big sack of cement I didn't realize I was carrying around; she was so right. "I got married in May. There was no ambivalence. My husband is such a fun person, and I can talk to him about anything, from reality television to politics to tandoori fish. It's not enough to love someone; you have to be friends, too. Plain and simple, I'm just happy when I'm around him."
*Names have been changed