Should I Stay or Go? How to Solve the Hardest Relationship Question

“Should I Stay or Should I Go?” is one of the most common questions we get from our clients who are agonizing over their relationship, desperately wanting to make the right choice and wishing they had a crystal ball to foresee the future consequences of their decision. While we don’t have the answer for your unique situation (and wouldn’t believe anyone who said they did), our goal as relationship coaches is to support you to make this life-changing decision as clearly, positively, and confidently as possible.

Top Four Decision-Making Considerations

1. What Type of Relationship?
Not all relationships are the same, so the decision making process probably shouldn’t be the same either. You have dating relationships, co-habitation relationships, pre-committed relationships, pre-marital relationships and committed relationships. They’re very different. The decision making process starts with the type of relationship. In general, the higher the commitment level, the higher the consequences and the more time and effort might be devoted to making it work.

2. The Impact of Leaving
The impact of leaving, not just on you but sometimes there are kids and family involved. There is a short term impact and a long term impact, so a choice you make today, in the moment, has long term consequences. Yes, that might sound obvious to say, but when we are in the moment, we often will make the choice impulsively or reactively and we won’t even consider the long term consequences, or if we do we’re not even conscious about what the long term consequences are. We definitely need to take into consideration the impact of leaving.

3. The Type of Choice
Is this a conscious choice or is it an impulse? Have you explored this fully? Have you taken into consideration all the factors, including your own part in it, or is this just an impulsive reactive choice because you’re upset, you’re angry, you’re frustrated? Have you been struggling with this on your own or have you been getting the support you need to make effective choices?

Trust me, I’ve been divorced twice. I’ve been in other relationships besides married relationships, and when I’ve struggled with this choice, I’m very loyal and responsible, and it was never an impulse to just leave, it was a struggle for years.

I totally understand the impulse to want that struggle to be over, to just make a decision and move on. It is really hard to stay in a situation that is stressful or frustrating. It’s really hard. I totally understand that. This is why it’s important to get the support you need to be as conscious as possible, because the impulse will be, eventually, “I just want the pain to be over.”

4. Requirements, Needs, and Wants
Another factor, a very important factor, is requirements, needs, and wants. After being a couples therapist for many years, it wasn’t until I became a relationship coach that I became aware that we have different needs in a relationship and they are not all equal.

Requirements: These are absolute, must have, non-negotiable deal-breakers, and if a requirement isn’t met, the relationship will not work.

Needs: These are what you need for your life to work with your partner. For example, you might need to feel loved. But they’re not necessarily deal breakers. You’re not necessarily going to get a divorce because of it, and they are solvable. There is a difference between solvable and unsolvable problems (more on that below).

Wants: These are the icing on the cake. Wants are what make life enjoyable. However, you can have a want unmet and still be happy. The problem with wants is that sometimes we confuse wants with needs or with requirements. That’s where having a relationship coach or a neutral third party that understands this can really help to talk through what’s really important to you: what is the critical non-negotiable deal breaker, and what would be okay and you could live with if it happened or didn’t happen, and what’s optional?

As far as requirements, what I found is that these are so huge that you really cannot live with a relationship as it is if the requirement isn’t met. Let’s take the example of infidelity. It’s quite common that infidelity will cause a relationship to go in crisis because one partner can absolutely not stand having infidelity in the relationship. That’s an example of a requirement. It is so strong. It is so forceful; you absolutely cannot live without it. Living without it is really difficult, and it would cause you to break up the relationship even if the consequences are immensely high for doing so.

When we get married we take vows, right? We take vows to be together for life. We, I would like to think, take those vows pretty seriously. So what would cause us to break those vows, to break that serious commitment that we made to be together for life?

There is some huge force that is even bigger than your vow. I call that force requirements. There is more to the story. It is possible to live with a requirement not being met. Things change, for instance, infidelity. Let’s say there is infidelity, you can get through it. Maybe you can’t live with infidelity and that is a deal breaker, but you can work through it with your partner, and you can get past it. There are situations where requirements aren’t necessarily a reason to break up a relationship, but that’s part of making a conscious choice. Those are some of the decision making factors to consider.

4. Solvable vs. Unsolvable Relationship Problems

Relationship issues can generally be divided into “solvable” and “unsolvable” categories.

Solvable relationship problems are generally related to your Needs. The most common relationship needs are Emotional and Functional. Your emotional needs are what you need to feel loved. Your functional needs are what you need for your life to work in a way that fits for you, as determined by your Vision. Needs are negotiable, and there are many ways to meet a need. However, the test for a need is that if it were not met, you would experience an issue EVERY time, so needs are very important, and are the difference between being happy or unhappy in a relationship.

Unsolvable relationship problems are generally related to your Requirements. Whether you know them or not, you do have non-negotiable requirements that MUST be met in order for a relationship to work for you. If ONE is missing the relationship will not work for you. Requirements are the relationship breakers, but we often confuse them with needs and wants, and treat them as equal. For example, a couple will argue about having children or not (which is probably a requirement for at least one partner), and will argue about who forgot to pay the gas bill (a functional need), and they both seem pretty stressful and interfere with the relationship working. The difference is that paying bills is negotiable and there are many ways to work that out, where having children is pretty non-negotiable for most people, who either want children or don’t, and if they are not in alignment they have an unsolvable problem.

Here are Four Alternatives for Solving an Unsolvable Problem:

1. Stay in the relationship and be unhappy
Many couples stay together and are miserable for many years. This option was more prevalent in past generations. Today, most people expect and need personal fulfillment, and find it impossible to stay in a situation that doesn’t work for them after time and effort has failed to fix the problem

2. Leave the relationship
This is the most common alternative chosen, and the reason for our high divorce rate and failure rate of co-habitation relationships

3. Let go of the problem
It is possible to simply let go of the problem. People do this when they realize the relationship is more important than their requirement, or if it is an area of growth. Requirements are core to who you are and the life and relationship you want, and it is pretty rare to be able to let go of one. An example of letting go of a requirement as an area of growth might be a partner who could not accept their partner’s weight gain, deciding to let go of needing them to be thin and accepting them the way they are.

4. Compromise
When you compromise you give up some of what you need in order to meet in the middle. This can be a challenge with Requirements, which tend to be pretty black and white. For example, how do you meet in the middle about children? You either have them, or you don’t. This option tends to work better with the support of a Relationship Coach to help the couple examine the options creatively and objectively and negotiate something that works for both partners and is sustainable in the long run.

What Will You Do?

If you’re reading this and struggling with this question in your relationship, now that you’re aware of some of the most important considerations for deciding whether to stay or go, what will you do?

After more than 40 years in the relationship profession, here’s my best advice: Do nothing.

That’s right, don’t make a decision right now. Don’t do something out of anger or pain that you’ll regret later. The bigger the stakes the more time and effort should go into making the best choice possible.

Get the support you need to make this decision to make this life-changing decision as clearly, positively, and confidently as possible, preferably from a professional relationship coach trained to support your best interests objectively and without judgment.

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