The decision whether one should stay or leave is one of the most consequential and painful any of us ever has to make. On any given day, many millions of people worldwide will be secretly turning the issue over in their minds as they go about their daily lives, their partners beside them possibly having little clue as to the momentous decision weighing upon them.
The choice is perhaps more common now than it ever was. We expect to be deeply happy in love and therefore spend a good deal of time wondering whether our relationships are essentially normal in their sexual and psychological frustrations – or are beset by unusually pathological patterns which should impel us to get out as soon as we can. What films or novels we’ve been exposed to, the state of our friends’ relationships, the degree of noise surrounding new sexually-driven dating apps, not to mention how much sleep we’ve had, can all play humblingly large roles in influencing us one way or another.
Awkwardly, it seems that no one else actually really minds what we end up doing, which gives the decision a degree of existential loneliness it might not always have possessed. Historically, the choice was in a sense a good deal easier because there were simply so many stern external sanctions around not leaving. Religions would insist that God blessed unions and would be furious at their being torn asunder. Society strongly disapproved of break-ups and cast separating parties into decades of ignominy and shame. And psychologists would explain that children would be deeply and permanently scarred by any termination in their parents’ relationship.
But one by one, these objections to quitting have fallen away. Religions no longer terrify us into staying, society doesn’t care and psychologists routinely tell us that children would prefer a broken family to an unhappy one. The burden of choice therefore falls squarely upon us. The only thing determining whether to stay or leave is how we feel – which can be a hard matter indeed to work out for ourselves, our feelings having a dispiriting habit of shifting and evading any efforts at rational clarification.