According to the study, some of the top reasons given by ambivalent study subjects to stay are the considerable investment they have already made in the marriage, the impact on children, and financial complications. This negative pragmatism was most evident in study subjects who had been married for about 9 years.
But the most commonly expressed reasons to stay for subjects who were not married but only dating included positive motivations such as admiring their partner’s personality or feeling more positive about the relationship.
These study subjects were only together for about 2 years and had not yet had children. This study once again underscores the enormous stress the transition to parenthood has on intimacy.
Professor Samantha Joel was trying to get at a different question than the research of Dr. John Gottman. In referencing Gottman’s groundbreaking research, Joel said that most of the research on breakups have been predictive, trying to predict whether a couple stays together or not.
Instead, Professor Joel was more curious about the decisional process itself. How do partners weigh the specific relational pros and cons that inform a decision to stay or leave? What are the emotional contours of ambivalence?
Joel tells us that about half of the partners in the study reported feeling ambivalent. They had both reasons to leave and reasons to stay.
What Professor Joel found most interesting was how ambivalent people felt about their relationships.
The study was clear that ambivalence is a huge factor. Breaking up is often a profoundly difficult decision.
You can look at a relationship from outside and say ‘you have some really unsolvable problems, you should break up’ but from the inside that is a really difficult thing to do and the longer you’ve been in a relationship, the harder it seems to be.” Dr. Samantha Joel.
Of course, Gottman reminds us that 69% of marital problems are unsolvable. They can only be managed with skill and good humor. Gottman might question some of the working concepts in this study. He might point out that sentiment override is a more important notion than ambivalence.
He might also argue that pragmatic considerations are indicative of negative sentiment override, and that ambivalence itself is a sign of negative sentiment override. He points out that love itself is not blind, but often indifferent to purely pragmatic considerations, including the negative traits of your partner’s personality.
These negative qualities recede when compared to the overwhelmingly positive features of a beloved partner. Pragmatic considerations are not the primary concern of a happily married loving couple. On the other hand, when a couple is no longer in positive sentiment override, pragmatic considerations are more heavily weighed (e.g. “he’s a good father and provider“).
Sentiment override about the qualities of your partner is a far more important measure of the soundness of a marriage than a laundry list of pragmatic concerns. In addition, like a light switch, when in the “off” position, there seems to be no positive light shining on your relationship other than pragmatic considerations. Then emotional reasons to leave a marriage may clash with the only remaining reasons to stay, which are pragmatic.
However, after effective couples therapy, many marriages “flip the switch” as Gottman has clearly demonstrated. Then the couple is able to see the positive qualities as outweighing the negative.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.