Decide When to End a Long-term Relationship

What if your relationship is pretty good, like a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10? Should you stay, openly committing to that relationship for life? Or should you leave and look for something better, something that could become even better?

This is the dreadful state of ambivalence. You simply aren’t sure one way or the other. Maybe what you have is good enough and you’d be a fool to abandon it in search of a new relationship you may never find. Or maybe you’re seriously holding yourself back from finding a truly fulfilling relationship that would serve you well the rest of your life. Tough call.

Fortunately, there’s an excellent book that provides an intelligent process for overcoming relationship ambivalence. It’s called Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay by Mira Kirshenbaum. I read this book many years ago, and it completely changed how I think about long-term relationships.

First, the book points out the wrong way to make this decision. The wrong way is to use a balance-scale approach, attempting to weigh the pros and cons of staying vs. leaving. Of course, that’s what everyone does. Weighing the pros and cons seems logical, but it doesn’t provide you with the right kind of information you need to make this decision. There will be pros and cons in every relationship, so how do you know if yours are fatal or tolerable or even wonderful? The cons tell you to leave, while the pros tell you to stay. Plus you’re required to predict future pros and cons, so how are you going to predict the future of your relationship? Who’s to say if your problems are temporary or permanent?

Kirshenbaum’s solution is to dump the balance-scale approach and use a diagnostic approach instead. Diagnose the true status of your relationship instead of trying to weigh it on a scale. This will provide you the information you need to make an intelligent decision and to know precisely why you’re making it. If you’re ambivalent, it means your relationship is sick. So discovering the precise nature of the disease seems an intelligent place to begin.

Each question is like passing your relationship through a filter. If you pass the filter, you proceed to the next question. If you don’t pass the filter, then the recommendation is that you end your relationship. In order to achieve the recommendation that you should stay together, you must pass through all 36 filters. If even one filter snags you, the recommendation is to leave.

This isn’t as brutal as it sounds though because most of these filters will be very easy for you to pass. My guess is that out of the 36 questions, less than a third will require much thought. Hopefully you can pass filters like, “Does your partner beat you?” and “Is your partner leaving the country for good without you?” without much trouble. If not, you don’t need a book to tell you your relationship is going downhill.

The author’s recommendations are based on observing the post-decision experiences of multiple couples who either stayed together or broke up after suffering from a state of ambivalence related to one of the 36 questions. The author then watched how those relationships turned out in the long run. Did the person making the stay-or-leave decision feel s/he made the correct choice years later? If the couple stayed together, did the relationship blossom into something great or decline into resentment? And if they broke up, did they find new happiness or experience everlasting regret over leaving?

I found this concept extremely valuable, like being able to turn the page of time to see what might happen. The recommendations are based on the author’s observations and her professional opinion, so I don’t recommend you take her advice blindly. However, I personally found all of her conclusions utterly sensible and didn’t find any surprises. I doubt you’ll be terribly surprised to read that a relationship with a drug user is virtually doomed to failure. But what about a relationship with someone you don’t respect? What about a long-distance relationship? Or a relationship with a workaholic who makes 10x your income? Would you like to know how such relationships tend to work out if the couple stays together vs. if they break up?

Kirshenbaum explains that where a break-up is recommended, it’s because most people who chose to stay together in that situation were unhappy, while most people who left were happier for it. So long-term happiness is the key criteria used, meaning the happiness of the individual making the stay-or-leave decision, not the (ex-)partner.

If you’re facing a “too good to leave, too bad to stay” dilemma, I highly recommend this book. You’ll breeze through most of the filters, but you’ll probably hit a few that snag you and really make you think. But I recommend this book not just for people who aren’t sure about the status of their relationship but also those with healthy relationships who want to make it even better. This book will help you diagnose the weak points of your relationship that could lead to break-up and allow you to consciously attend to them.