f you’re in a relationship, are you in love with your partner? Does he or she make you happy? If you answered yes to both questions, you’re fortunate indeed. But if you answered no to either one, there’s growing scientific evidence that staying in the relationship is the wrong decision–for you, for your partner, and even for your children, if any.
Juliana Breines, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island, shoots holes in one of the biggest fallacies that keeps people in bad relationships: The idea that being single will make us more unhappy or less worthy. Both ideas have been disproved by recent research.
One set of studies showed that people who fear being single are likelier to settle for partners who may not make them happy, and also likelier to pursue or accept relationships in the first place where there are clear signs of trouble ahead–for example, with someone who writes in his or her dating profile, “I love what I do, so I need someone who respects that and is willing to take the back seat when necessary.” While this may be true at times for many ambitious people and especially for entrepreneurs, when a prospective partner writes something like this in a dating profile, it’s a clear red flag.
If you’re committed to your career and your company, there will likely be times when you pay less attention to your relationship–for example while trying to close a big deal or get a new company off the ground. There will likely be other times when you prioritize your relationship, for example when you’re getting married or if your partner is ill. Most potential mates understand this. So if you were writing your own dating profile you might mention your work and how much it means to you, but you probably wouldn’t warn a potential mate about having to “take the back seat.” Someone who goes out of their way to say something like this before you’ve even met is probably warning you that they’ll be emotionally unavailable most of the time.
Researchers also found that participants who pursued or stayed in unsatisfying relationships out of fear of being single were wasting their time and effort because they were just as unhappy–and just as lonely–as their single counterparts. A second reason people stay when they want to leave may be social or familial pressure. As Breines notes, “singlism”–the idea that single people are less worthy or more selfish than married ones–is pervasive throughout society. Singlism can be truly pernicious in traditional cultures or religious communities where marriage and procreation are seen as a universal duty. But again, research disproves the idea that single people are more selfish. In fact, studies show that single people are more willing to help parents and others who need assistance than partnered ones are.
For the kids?
If being in an unsatisfying relationship won’t make you happier than being single, and if the social stigma against single-hood is as invalid as many other social stigmas, then why would you stay in a relationship that doesn’t make you happy? There’s a third motivation that keeps many parents trapped in bad relationships–they don’t want to traumatize their children by splitting up. But again, the research suggests that “staying together for the kids” is likely the wrong decision. In a U.K. poll, 514 young people, ages 14 to 22 were surveyed about their parents’ breakup and its aftermath. Eighty-two percent said they were better off with their parents apart than if they had stayed together in an unhappy marriage. The findings seem to suggest that seeing one’s parents in constant conflict is more traumatic for children than seeing them split up.
Even parents who make sure not to argue in front of the kids probably aren’t doing those kids any favors by staying together if they’re unhappy. It’s notoriously difficult to fool the children in your household into thinking you’re happy in your marriage when you’re not. And when children grow up they tend to emulate what their parents did. So if your children saw you stay in an unhappy relationship, chances are that’s what they’ll do, too. They may set that same example for their own children as well. Which means that by staying when you want to leave, you could be creating a legacy of misery in bad relationships that endures through several generations.
These days, separating parents are increasingly trying out novel solutions for ending their romantic relationships while maintaining stability for the kids. In a “parenting marriage,” parents morph from a couple into best friends/roommates/co-parents, continuing to share their home with their children while acknowledging each other’s independence to pursue their own lives, including dating other people.
Obviously, that’s not for everyone, but there are a wide variety of options that keep kids connected to both parents without forcing those parents to stay in an unhappy relationship. I experienced this myself. When my mother left my father, she moved only four blocks away so that I could easily go back and forth between their two homes. They coordinated on everything and frequently had dinner together with me. Sometimes we even went on family vacations together. Another couple I know split up a few years ago but they are coaching their very athletic children together on their various sports teams.
There’s no one right answer to how to dissolve an unsatisfying relationship, especially when there are children involved. But there is one right answer to the question of whether or not you should. If you’ve tried your best and you know things won’t get better, then move on. You’ll be better off on your own. And you’ll be giving yourself the chance to find someone new.