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At a workshop in Mexico last month, I invited the audience to brainstorm a list of reasons for ending a relationship. Why do people break up?
The group came up with about 40 different reasons. I’m sure if we kept going, we could have come up with dozens more.
I also read many articles on relationship breakups to look for more reasons people break up. My main goal, however, wasn’t to create a mega-list. I was interested in finding the core patterns that these situations have in common.
I figured that if we can better understand why people break up, we can also better understand why people stay together, and we can use that knowledge to identify better matches and to strengthen our existing relationships.
Compressing the List
If we compress, simplify, and generalize the reported reasons for breaking up, we can work it down to a list like this:
- Lack of trust – dishonesty; suspicion; broken commitments; cheating
- Lack of growth – stagnation; too little growth or progression; outgrowing a partner
- Falling out of love – the emotional bond weakens
- Unmet needs – important needs unfulfilled; compromise instead of win-win
- Insecurity – people often leave partners who seem clingy and insecure
- Unacceptable behavior – boundaries violated; partner can’t or won’t change
- Incompatibility – conflicting or diverging goals, desires, or values; growing apart
- Social and family pressures – disharmony; privacy invasion; external boundary violations
- Wanting to be single – not wanting to be in a relationship; restoring individuality
- Not enough touch or sex, or bad sex – loss of sensual and sexual desire and/or fulfillment
- Not enough fun – lack of fun weakens the emotional bond
- Abuse – physical, mental, and/or emotional disempowerment
- Drug abuse – causes a myriad of problems
- Money problems – conflicts about spending, saving, debt, risk, etc.; increases relationship stress
- Not enough value exchange – unbalanced giving and/or receiving; feeling of running on empty
If we simply pause here, we can reverse engineer this list to come up with some positive traits of healthy relationships, which would look like this:
- High trust – honest sharing; commitments kept
- High growth – sense of growth or progression; partners keep pace with each other
- Mutual love – maintain a strong emotional bond
- Needs met – important needs are fulfilled; win-win, not compromise
- Secure – partners have good self-esteem and feel secure as individuals
- Boundaries respected – no unacceptable behaviors; mutual respect, not tolerance
- High compatibility – goals, desires, or values are aligned
- Social and family harmony – external boundaries defined and maintained; privacy respected
- Balancing individuality and couplehood – maintaining some space in togetherness
- Abundant touch, good sex – exploration and fulfillment of sensual and sexual desires
- Abundant fun – having fun together strengthens the emotional bond and reduces stress
- Encouragement – physical, mental, and/or emotional empowerment
- Healthy lifestyles – free of destructive addictions
- Financial compatibility – compatible financial goals and practices; similar risk tolerance
- Positive value exchange – balanced giving and receiving; relationship adds value
If we wanted to, we could use this list to write a book about healthy relationships. Many people have already done so, and their lists of positive qualities are often variations on the above.
Why Do People Really Break Up?
One big issue with the first list is that there are plenty of real-world examples where couples have some of the negative qualities listed, and they don’t actually break up. Or they have many of the positive qualities and don’t stay together.
Scan the items on the first list one by one. For each item listed, can you think of a situation where someone might remain in the relationship anyway?
Do people ever stay in a relationship that isn’t growing?
Do people ever stay in abusive relationships till death do them part?
Does anyone remain in a sexless relationship?
So how can these be reasons for breaking up if we can find plenty of counter-examples where these factors exist and people don’t actually break up?
Another question involves the timing of the actual breakup. Why do people endure some of these so-called breakup factors for years, and then finally they decide to leave? Why didn’t they leave when the problem first appeared? Why did they tolerate it for so long and then finally give up? What changed?
The first list includes the reasons people provide to explain their breakups, but if other relationships have these same factors and remain intact, and if people often endure these problems for years before finally leaving, then I suggest that these reasons are not the true causes for the breakups. Something else must be causing the breakups to occur.
Now what is that something else?
It seems clear that different people assign different meanings to similar events.
For one person, cheating is a reason to leave immediately. For another, it’s a reason to forgive and heal. And for yet another, it’s a reason to renegotiate the nature of the commitment.
For one person, little or no sex is a reason to leave (or to cheat). For another, it’s an invitation to try to spice things up. For another, it’s a test of one’s commitment to God.
For one person, high financial stress is a reason to leave. For another, it’s a chance to practice greater teamwork. For another, it’s an invitation to put love ahead of material concerns.
The assignment of meaning can be complex and involves factors such as the person’s upbringing, education, experience, and expectations. This is a clue, but it’s not the whole story. Can we unearth any patterns here that might better explain why people actually break up?
One element of assigning meaning is prediction. When people assign meaning to events, they’re often making predictions about the future. The meaning helps determine their expectations. Their expectations influence their ultimate decision.
When people predict that staying in a relationship will be better than leaving, they’ll generally stay if they can. But when events trigger a reassessment of these predictions, the balance can shift towards leaving.
A person can be in an abusive relationship for years, holding out hope that their partner will change or that at least it won’t get any worse. But then something shifts, such as an unexpectedly over-the-top incident of abuse or the introduction of a feasible escape strategy, and the prediction changes. As the prediction changes, so does the meaning of staying vs. leaving.
Many relationships end with a “straw that broke the camel’s back” incident. The incident may seem relatively minor to some, but it’s enough to change the prediction of the outcomes for staying vs. leaving, and sometimes it only takes a small shift to cross from one side to the other.
Ultimately, people are making predictions about whether the relationship will improve, stagnate, or decline. When the person predicts a more desirable outcome for leaving than for staying, this can contribute to the decision to leave.
When we consider the role of prediction, we can understand that the reason many people seem to leave one partner for another is that they predict a better outcome with the new partner. Before that new partner appears, the predicted outcome for leaving isn’t as positive.
If you’ve ever been through a breakup, think about the role of prediction. Can you identify a shift in predicted outcomes shortly before the breakup for you or your partner? Can you also see a shift in the meaning that you assigned to staying vs. leaving?
Why do people on the verge of breakup sometimes change course and reconcile? Once again, they change their predictions, often because their partner influences them to do so. Enough hope is restored that the prediction of staying together becomes more positive, at least temporarily. People often go through several rounds of trying to leave and then reconciling until they’re able to predict from experience that reconciling won’t actually create a lasting improvement. When they predict that reconciling is pointless too, they can finally break up.
The challenge of making predictions about relationships is that we never have perfect accuracy. There are too many factors to consider. Other aspects of life, such as work and finances, may influence the decision. Even our own memories are fuzzy, so we can’t fully trust them. Consequently, people often remain ambivalent for years, never sure about whether to stay or go. It’s important to accept that our predictions will never be accurate.
What we can say, however, is that prolonged ambivalence is generally a good reason to leave. Ambivalence denies people of many of the greatest benefits of a relationship, and it makes planning for the future incredibly difficult. If you need to keep asking, “Should I stay or go?” month after month and year after year, you should know that people in such situations are generally happier when they leave. This is because the long-term outcome for an ambivalent relationship is predictably weak. Ambivalence creates unnecessary stress. The odds favor leaving such a relationship to find a better one. Simply leaving such an ambivalent relationship to be single for a while can improve one’s self-esteem and create a more positive outlook for the future.
Another pattern we can see in the reasons for breaking up is a change in one’s desires or in the ability to fulfill one’s desires.
People often decide to leave a relationship when the relationship gets in the way of their desires. This involves some prediction too of course — they eventually predict that it will be easier to fulfill their desires if they leave.
Some desires are minor, such as the desire for which movie to go see next. Few people would leave a relationship for squashing such an insignificant desire. Other desires, however, are seen as important and life-enhancing. To deny their fulfillment for too long simply isn’t acceptable.
Sometimes these desires are present from the beginning of the relationship. Some desires, however, arise during the course of the relationship. Some desires become triggered due to changing circumstances, such as a change in the couple’s financial situation or the introduction of new influences.
People generally aren’t happy when they turn their backs on their desires. A relationship that quashes one’s desires has a predictably poor outcome, and this prediction often improves when the person leaves such a relationship to pursue those important desires.
Desires regarding one’s lifelong path of growth are particularly important, and it’s wise to favor relationships that support such desires. This includes your lifestyle and career desires, your health desires, and your financial desires.
In a healthy relationship with the prediction of a positive long-term outlook, desires are aligned. In the best situations, the relationship will increase your ability to explore and fulfill your desires. At the very least, however, the relationship won’t get in your way.
If a relationship tries to convince you to turn away from or to minimize desires that you consider important to your life path, you’ll likely be happier if you leave. In fact, pursuing that desire on your own will often lead you to a more compatible relationship partner.
This is true for families, friends, and co-workers too. In all your relationships, look for strong alignment with your desires. Don’t fall into the trap of misplaced loyalty with people who will only slow you down from exploring your desires. There are plenty of compatible people who will gladly help and encourage you in the direction you want to go.
A third general reason that people leave a relationship is that the the relationship is disempowering them.
Staying in the relationship means continued weakness, a loss of self-esteem, and a feeling of missing out. There’s a general feeling that the relationship is dragging you down.
One of the most common reasons people report for leaving a relationship is that the relationship became too much work and was no longer worth the effort.
Many people have had the experience of being in a relationship that required a lot of work to maintain. They eventually leave to seek relief from the endless fatigue, diminished self-worth, and unappreciated effort. Such people sometimes say that the relationship was “draining their energy” or “sucking the life out of them.”
People often leave such relationships when they experience a temporary surge of power, such as they might feel during a personal growth workshop. They’re reminded of their strength, and they can clearly see how much their relationship has been weakening them. This wake-up call changes their predictions and their desires. They want to get back into alignment with their power, they predict they can do it, and they’re no longer willing to tolerate disempowerment. The temporary power surge makes it possible to finally flip the switch and decide to leave.
A healthy relationship makes you stronger. It adds resources to your life, such as being able to benefit from your partner’s knowledge and skills. It enables you to achieve bigger goals through teamwork, such as pooling your savings to buy a house together.
Sometimes people become so drained by a disempowering relationship that they can’t even muster the energy to leave. In these situation it’s often a caring friend or family member who encourages them to leave. This is especially common in abusive relationships and in those involving drug abuse.
The Three Reasons to Leave
Ultimately people leave relationships for fairly basic reasons. The circumstances may appear complex, but there are really just three primary reasons that people opt out:
- They predict that life will be better if they leave.
- They want to stop the relationship from interfering with more important desires.
- The relationship is weakening them, and they want to stop the energy drain and grow stronger.
You may recognize within these ideas the three core principles of growth:
- Truth – recognizing and accepting the truth that the relationship is stagnant or declining
- Love – feeling drawn to explore and fulfill greater desires
- Power – needing to grow stronger and to feel empowered
Perhaps the simplest way of stating this is that people leave when they perceive that leaving is the intelligent choice.
Remaining in a relationship with a prediction of stagnation or decline is unintelligent.
Remaining in a relationship that prevents you from exploring and fulfilling your desires is unintelligent.
Remaining in a relationship that drains and disempowers you is unintelligent.
Any one of these reasons is enough to make leaving the intelligent choice. Two or three needn’t be present. But generally speaking, if one reason is present, the others are likely to be present to some degree as well. A relationship with negative prediction and/or the quashing of one’s desires is sure to be disempowering, for instance.
All of these, of course, are judgment calls. They all require the assignment of meaning. Different people will make different assessments with respect to these ideas, but if you understand these core reasons to stay or go, you can apply them to better effect in your own relationship journey.
Intelligent Reasons to Connect, Stay, and Grow
Why bother getting involved in a relationship in the first place? How can you make a good relationship stronger?
When we understand why people break up, we can use these same ideas to see why people would want to connect and why they’d want to stay together.
A good reason for getting involved with someone is that you expect that getting involved will turn out better than not getting involved. Initially you may be motivated by simple curiosity. Later you may want to explore, learn, grow, and have fun together. Eventually you may decide to build a life together.
One way to strengthen a relationship is to share your thoughts and feelings about where the relationship is going and where you’d each like it to go. What’s important about the future direction? Are you on the same page? Are your expectations aligned or conflicted?
From time to time, ask your partner, “Where do you see us in five years?” That will shed some light on their predictions. It’s normal for such predictions to be a little vague, but if the person dodges the question, it could mean that they’re predicting a different outcome than you’d expect, such as the end of the relationship or a different way of relating.
In order to create positive prediction in a relationship, it’s wise to focus on creating positive prediction for yourself as an individual first. Sometimes this alone is enough to create the clarity that it’s time to leave, such as when you feel you realize you just don’t have enough control over your life to fulfill your desires. You’ll also find that when you establish positive prediction for your own path, you’ll tend to attract new relationship partners who are aligned with your path. People are naturally attracted to those who are optimistic about the future, so restoring optimism to your path as an individual is an important step.
Keep in mind that most relationships don’t end with a mutual decision to do so. In most cases one person decides to leave, while the other would rather stay together. It’s highly unusual for both people to decide to leave at the same time. Even when the events are the same for each person, the assignment of meaning won’t necessarily match up.
Exploring and Fulfilling Desires
Another reason to get involved with someone is to explore your desires. These desires could be intellectual, emotional, sexual, spiritual, social, or anything else. It’s beautiful when you meet someone who wants to explore your desires with you, and vice versa.
Once you begin connecting with someone, it’s great to ask each other, “What would you like to explore and experience together?” If you come up with some compatible desires, like traveling to certain cities or having certain sexual experiences, make an effort to explore them together. Fulfilling your desires as a couple can strengthen your emotional bond and make you more likely to continue this pattern.
Even short-term relationships, such as those that happen while traveling, can be wonderful when you and the other person can agree upon what you’d like to explore together and you set reasonable expectations for doing so. Travel romance is a beautiful thing.
If, however, you encounter someone with incompatible desires, then either renegotiate them, or move on. Don’t pretend to be willing to satisfy desires that you’re opposed to exploring. You may want to approach new desires with an open mind, but don’t feel inclined to take one for the team. Just allow your partner the space to explore those desires independently.
Open relationships tend to have more flexibility in this area because people have more freedom to explore desires with other partners that may not appeal to their primary partner. In mono relationships, however, if your partner isn’t interested in exploring a desire with you, then exploring with someone else may be considered unacceptable. Many people in such situations either cheat on the side and hide this from their partner, or they find another outlet for their repressed desires such as porn addiction. Either way, this weakens the emotional bonds with their primary partner, which can start moving the relationship toward an eventual breakup. Consequently, for a mono relationship to endure, the bar for compatibility is significantly higher. If you only have one source for fulfilling your intimacy needs, you’ll need to find an extremely compatible partner, and in such a relationship, there’s a tendency for each person to want to control the other to some degree, so as to prevent their desires from diverging.
When desires diverge, as often happens in long-term relationships, it’s wise to reconsider whether the partnership is worth continuing. All relationships eventually end, whether in separation, divorce, or death. The question to ask is, “Does it make sense to continue this relationship until one of us dies, or shall we conclude it consciously before then?”
We tend to value and appreciate relationships that help us grow stronger. This includes connections that bring us new resources, opportunities, knowledge, skills, advice, encouragement, and support. It’s intelligent to seek out such relationships, all else being equal.
People commonly say that they just want love, but their behavior suggests otherwise. Instead of denying this reality, perhaps it makes more sense to embrace it. If you offer strengths that you don’t actually have, any relationship you attract will be based on continuing that manipulation, which is stressful and prevents real intimacy and connection. If, however, you offer what you can genuinely give, and you request what you genuinely desire, it’s generally easier to find compatible matches, and the matches you do find will be stronger.
This mistake many people make here is that they get caught up in projecting socially conditioned strengths, which usually involve shallow, temporary strengths such as looks, income, or social status. And so they attract partners who are seeking those as well. It’s common to hear someone complain about attracting too many gold diggers while simultaneously trying to project strengths that would naturally attract such a person.
I believe we can strike a balance between seeing ourselves as whole and complete individuals while also acknowledging that good relationships can and do make us stronger. A healthy relationship strengthens all involved. An unhealthy one drains one or more people.
This is why a commitment to personal growth is such a critical part of a long-term relationship. In the absence of such a commitment, the couple will start falling behind in their ability to tackle the various challenges of life. Instead of growing stronger together, they’ll grow weaker. Rarely does this happen at the same rate for each person, so it’s likely that one person will grow weary of such weakening and will choose to leave, while the other partner is left wondering what happened.
Where a strong mutual commitment to personal growth exists, both partners strengthen each other as they grow stronger as individuals. This can help them create a stronger emotional bond as well.
Your Best Partners
To begin a new relationship on the healthiest footing, there are three simple aspects to consider.
First, give some thought to prediction. What sort of relationship would predictably yield a positive outcome for you and the other person?
Some partners will be predictably poor choices, while others will be amazing choices. If the prediction is weak from the get-go, it’s wise to hold out for a better match.
Suppose you meet someone who tells you about her past relationships, and each one of them was a trainwreck that ended with hurt and resentment. Would you want to get involved with such a person, knowing that you’ll be next? If you’re in the mood for some drama, then go for it. Otherwise you may want to look for a more sensible partner who begins and ends relationships honestly and compassionately and who has a track record of choosing decent partners who’ve treated her well.
Some people won’t date anyone without a stable income since they know from experience where that leads. Some people won’t date anyone who eats fast food every day since the long-term health problems are predictable. Some people won’t date anyone with an overly clingy family since the boundary issues and privacy violations are predictable.
It’s wise to base your predictions on a person’s past behavior and circumstances, not on what they say they’ll do. Be careful about being overly influenced by someone’s words. Pay more attention to their long-term pattern of actions.
If you like to travel, and you meet someone who’s been traveling regularly, it’s predictable that you may travel together if you get involved. If you’re a long-term vegan, and you meet a fellow long-term vegan, it’s predictable that you’d reinforce your vegan lifestyle together. If you like to drink a lot, and you meet someone similar, it’s predictable that you could be alcoholics together.
Predictions aren’t always accurate of course, but do pay attention to them. We make predictions automatically, but we don’t always listen to them, much to our detriment.
Second, think about which desires you’d like to explore with a new partner.
To filter for your best matches, share your most important desires as early as possible. Don’t be afraid of turning people off. If someone isn’t compatible, then sharing your desires will indeed turn them off, and that’s a good thing. It shows respect for everyone’s time. Don’t jerk people around by encouraging them to invest in you if you’re unlikely to be a good match for them.
When you share your desires with someone who isn’t compatible, you’ll usually get a cold or indifferent response. But when you do this with someone who is compatible, you may find yourself talking for hours and not even noticing the time pass because you’re both so in tune with each other. Don’t deny yourself this delightful situation by wasting time hiding your desires or projecting false desires.
Invite the other person to share their desires with you. Do those desires align well with what you’d like to explore? If not, move on, so each of you can find more compatible matches. Otherwise you can talk about what you’d like to explore together, and if it’s possible to do so, dive into one of those explorations right away. There’s nothing quite so thrilling as finding a good match and running with it as you explore together.
Third, look for mutual empowerment.
Just as you wouldn’t want someone draining your energy, you wouldn’t want to be a drain on someone else either. One of the simplest ways to prevent that is with daily exercise. It’s a mood booster and is one of the best depression cures ever discovered. If that isn’t enough, then clean up your diet, and do some serious detoxing, so you’ll have extra energy to give and so you won’t be vamping off other people.
When you make yourself strong as an individual, you’ll add strength to your relationships, and you’ll be worthy of strong partners who can make you stronger in return. You’ll also be less likely to succumb to a draining relationship because you won’t tolerate such imbalance and unfairness in your life.
It’s wonderful to have a partner’s love. It’s also wonderful to have a partner that helps you grow, which is love in action.
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Whether you’re already in a relationship or seeking a new one, pay attention to the three fundamentals of prediction, desire, and empowerment. When those three are aligned, you know you have a winner. When you’ve fallen out of alignment, it may be time to start thinking about a conscious breakup. Remember that the alignment is always your responsibility. Restore and preserve this alignment in your life as an individual, and then you can attract a compatible partner who will enhance that alignment.