“Darlin you got to let me know……. should I stay or should I go?” ~ The Clash, 1981
Although your life might not be as dramatic as The Clash’s love song, the decision about continuing or discontinuing a dating relationship can be a doozy. Current literature suggests many people will spend ten or more years in the dating pool before settling down, so if you’re only in year two, give yourself a break. If you’re stuck in the intermediary phase of half-in half-out and trying to make a decision, here are some things to consider.
How do they make you feel?
When you think about your partner, or potential partner, do you feel a sense of warmth and wanting, or are you beginning to cringe at the sound of their feet coming towards you. Trust your body’s signals, it doesn’t lie and holds tons of innate wisdom. A frequently pondered question, “Should I stay or should I go,” is not always an easy one to answer.
Are you your most authentic self with them?
One of the many joys of intimate relationships is the sense of stability a partner provides. This feeling can enliven and allow you to go into the world and become the best version of yourself. Is your current partner supporting your career and life goals? Do they appreciate and attempt to understand where you are going, and do they want to go with you? People grow and evolve during relationships. You will not be the same person today five years from now, but that doesn’t mean you always grow together. If your partner is supportive of your growth, and vice versa, you can continue to navigate the changes. If you find that one or both of you starts to become resentful or disappointed, this is worth further examination.
How do you fight?
Let’s be real, there is conflict in relationships and this is good! Learning how individuals communicate is essential to understanding their values and identity. Healthy conflict strategies are key to maturation, whereas unhealthy strategies, (i.e., verbal hostility, defensiveness, stonewalling, etc.), have the potential to negatively impact relationship development. Research highlights family of origin as a factor for aggressive behavior. It may have been learned, but, if someone has a secure attachment style, there is greater potential for a conscious adjustment, (i.e., they might easily recognize their behavior is inappropriate without your telling them). Pay attention next time you fight, and see what happens. Is there a resolution? Do you feel heard? Do you feel threatened? How did you handle yourself? How did your partner handle themself?
Do you share stuff or values?
Often people ask, “Well, what do you like about them?” It’s a valid question, but what if you looked deeper? Try asking yourself if you align with what they value, or what is important to them? These questions prompt reflection and lead away from more superficial reasons such as appearance, financial security, or watching the same shows. Those things are okay, but who are they as a person? What do they stand for? Can you stand with them? If you share a pet or something that requires a commitment, research predicts a higher continuation rate, but this may be due to avoidance-based behaviors (i.e., not wanting to lose the dog, apartment, friend group) rather than established connection. As much as possible it is wise to delay shared stuff early on in a relationship, in order to avoid obligatory feelings of commitment.
Do they have people in their life other than you?
There is a difference between being a lone wolf and having a support system versus being a narcissist. Support networks outside of romantic relationships are crucial. One person cannot fulfill all of your needs. Attachment theorists posit romantic partners replace the attachment of primary caregivers, hence, you become each other’s caregivers. Fantastic, but, who do you go to when you want to vent about your partner’s annoying tooth brushing, or when your partner wants to stay in and you are itching to see the new Pixar movie? Finding companionship is a beautiful gift, but when you make someone your everything, you risk smothering them, and in effect, yourself. It’s smart to check out your partner’s family, the parental relationship is the first working model of a romantic partnership a person witnesses. What are their parents like? How do they show up in their family or friend group? People who have developed an identity as unloved and/or feel repeatedly rejected often look for the same qualities in a romantic relationship. Be wary of comments like, “you don’t really even like me do you?”. These are red flags of insecurity and unhealthy attachment. No one is perfect, but manipulation and feelings of guilt are never reasons to stay.
How’s the sex?
Come on, someone had to ask. It may not have been good the first time, maybe the first three times, but if you’ve been dating consistently, this is definitely something to consider. Are you curious about your partner and their desires and vice versa? Not only is sex important for health reasons, an active sex life leads to greater levels of well-being, but it strengthens the intimacy bond between couples. Sex breeds affection, and affection, in turn, breeds more sex. It’s a wonderful feedback loop! Even if you aren’t going at it every day, finding moments to engage in physical touch helps release Oxytocin, the feel good neurotransmitter that aids in creating trust and bonding. Should I stay or should I go? Well, how good is the sex?
Do you feel trapped?
Feeling trapped is a major sign of a relationship’s direction and frequently rises out of unconscious fears of loneliness and separation. You might think, “I don’t want to start over.” Ask yourself, what might be the bigger risk, staying in a relationship you don’t enjoy? Or, leaving and experiencing what might be uncomfortable feelings of singledom? Ouch. Either way, people are going to be hurt. The difference is whether or not to hurt yourself or others on purpose. Relationship dissolution, or breakups, are some of the most traumatic experiences you can have, but try not to let it deter you from seeking intimacy. Consider your three levels of commitment to help weigh in on the decision. Do you find a sense of purpose and meaning in the relationship (personal)? Do you feel obligated to stay (moral)? What are your chances of a better mate if you leave (structural)?. No right answer, but in the dating world, when you haven’t entered into marriage and perhaps there are no kids, you don’t need to “stay in it for the family.”
What type of relationship are you looking for?
Ask yourself what you want from a relationship right now. Not five years from now, not 10 years from now, but right now, what is most important to you. You change and evolve, as do your wants and needs, and that is okay! Research points out the new norm is delayed marriage, particularly to have time to explore options, and there is no longer a typical relationship trajectory. It’s worth noting some highlighted differences between men and women, these often relate to heterosexual people, who are often overrepresented in the literature, but still apply. Women are known to be more relational than men and are more likely to find issues or reasons to end things, within the relationship, and to offer more reasons why they were to break it off. Young men are less likely to be in a romantic relationship, and view lifelong commitment as less important than women to a successful relationship. Regardless, the ability to achieve healthy relationships or a mindful coupleship are important transitions into adulthood.
Trust yourself. You will know if you should stay or if you should go, when you have enough information to make the call. You likely have the answer but may be relying on left-brain logical decision-making as opposed to right-brain intuition. If you need more data, get more data. When you’re ready to make a decision, go for it and trust yourself. Most people stay in relationships because they want emotional intimacy, and most leave because of trust issues. Instead of going over the pros and cons list again, perhaps sit with yourself, slow down and pay attention to your feelings. The answer will come, when you’re ready to know it.