Excerpted from the book THE NORMAL BAR. Copyright © 2013 by Chrisanna Northrup, Pepper Schwartz, and James Witte. Published by Harmony, an Imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. The Normal Bar is the world's most extensive survey on romantic relationships, polling over 100,000 people and collecting over 1 million data points. The survey was conducted in 2011 using a powerful interactive survey tool called OnQ with the help of media partners The Huffington Post, Reader's Digest, AARP, iVillage, & AOL.
When love does not endure, the inevitable question arises: Is it time to break up? In the United States the divorce rate tells us that about 50% of all married couples at some point do untie the knot. But as anyone who’s ever done it knows, breaking up really is hard to do, which is why so many people lie, cheat, and suffer to avoid it. The Normal Bar confirms this, showing that a quarter of partners are anywhere from unhappy to extremely unhappy in their relationships, yet they continue year after year, telling themselves, “This is as good as I’m going to get,” or “This is just the way it is.” These people may be unhappier than they need to be, since even a devitalized or disappointing relationship can be made better—a lot better.
Happiness is not just a matter of luck. It requires desire and careful tending. The Normal Bar shows that happy couples nurture each other, communicate well, and maintain emotional and sexual intimacy. Sure, there are times when relationships are hard work, but that “work” pays off! Even the smallest of acts and words that foster and maintain intimacy can turn a relationship around. But both partners need to want to create or restore happiness and be willing to redirect their time and energy toward pleasing and understanding each other. When one or both partners refuse to participate in this revitalization process, breaking up may seem like the only way to create a new and better normal.
Who contemplates breaking up more, men or women?
It’s normal to think about breaking up. There’s no differentiation between the sexes here: Men and women are equally matched when it comes to considering other options. More than a third (37%) say they think about breaking up all the time or often, and another 33% say they sometimes think about it. Only 12% say they never think about it and 20% say they rarely do.
Not surprisingly, the number is much higher among unhappy couples, where 87% of partners contemplate leaving their relationships. But even 34% of extremely happy partners think about breaking up from time to time. Normal relationships ebb and flow!
Have the media affected your feelings about your relationship to the point where you thought more seriously about leaving?
Given the plentiful research on the impact of media on human relationships, we decided to ask if this influence went so far as to prompt serious thoughts about breaking up. More than a third—37% of females and 36% of males—said it had! This is alarming. When people base major real-life decisions on the illusions of love presented by larger-than-life screen romances, terrible mistakes can be made. No one’s relationship can measure up to the mega-moments of love, sex, and excitement that Hollywood generates—especially not all the time.
If you have contemplated leaving your partner, what scares you most?
The number-one thing that scares men and women about leaving their partners is the possibility that they’d regret it. When asked what most held them back, 37% of women and 27% of men said they’re afraid of living with a lifetime of regret. These people understand that no one can predict the future, and in most cases, a decision to leave cannot be undone.
The second most common breakup fear is of hurting the other partner. This was the reason 18% of men and 12% of women gave for being afraid to leave.
The third scariest thing about leaving is the prospect of being alone. This was the specter named by 11% of men and 14% of women.
Surprisingly, kids and money did not rank in the top three choices of separation anxieties. Money may be less of an issue since so many women now earn enough to support themselves, but the lack of concern about children is surprising given the stereotype—often backed up by historical practice—of couples “staying together for the sake of the children.”
Perhaps the norm is shifting as people conclude that their own happiness is more in their children’s best interests than staying in a troubled and unsatisfying marriage.
When do you know it’s time to break up?
Thinking of leaving is one thing, but telling your partner it’s over is another. If the relationship is emotionally or physically violent, leaving may be decided by one screaming fight or slamming door too many. If it’s a relationship that is limping along, however, and only one person is truly miserable enough to want out, the last straw can be difficult to identify, much less explain. This is why people may know that the love is gone for years without even broaching the subject of leaving.
While breakups can appear sudden and inexplicable to outsiders, the Normal Bar data show that most people in terminal relationships torture themselves about leaving, and stay together a lot longer than they should. Even when one is sure that leaving is the right thing to do, it still takes fortitude, and sometimes courage, to do the deed. For the person who is being left, reactions may vary from relief to immeasurable pain. For all involved, the consequences are grave enough that the person leaving needs to be sure the relationship truly is over. One key signal is the realization that leaving is easier than staying. Here are some others:
“I left my husband after he tried to throw me out of a moving car when we were in a big fight.” —female, 41, married 11 years, with kids
“When she told me that she thought there was somebody better out there for her. As soon as I heard that, I was done.” —male, 44, married 15 years, with kids
“I left him because I noticed that he doesn’t love me anymore.”
—female, 34, in a 6‐year committed relationship
“She had an online relationship with somebody she never met for over a year, and I couldn’t bring myself to trust her again.” —male, 38, married 6 years
“I knew I was done when my husband drove with our kids in the car while he was drunk.” —female, 43, married 16 years
Check out the slideshow below for signs that you need to break up, according to the Twitterverse.