Should I Stay or Should I Go? Understanding Relationships for Writers

Got a character that stays in a relationship, not matter how dysfunctional it is or how unhappy they are? Or have you got the quintessential elderly couple whose relationship has outlived our terrible divorce rates and they’ve been happily married for forty years? Is there a theory that can explain why Bella chose Edward and not Jacob, why we see Harry and Ginny content and happy nineteen years later, or why Angelina finally left Brad?

The factors that decide why we stay in a fulfilling/unfulfilling relationship or why we leave a text book perfect/not-so-perfect relationship are complicated and diverse. But if you want to write believable characters, complex and layered characters, characters that a reader will connect with so subconsciously they don’t even know they’re comparing and contrasting themselves to Shaniqua as she decides whether she should stay in her relationship of two weeks/five months/ten years, you need to understand the human psyche.

Luckily, psychology has come up with a couple of theories that predict what us temperamental humans will take into account as we contemplate one of the most gut-wrenching decisions a person can make – do I stay…or do I go?

There are two main theories, one a little more simple than the other. Let’s ease in with the one that’s fairly straightforward. Equity theory says that satisfaction in a relationship is highest when the ratio between benefits and contributions is similar for both partners. It looks something like this (the equation was the best I could do…);

     Your Benefits                           =                 Your Partner’s Benefits        

Your Contribution                                      Your Partner’s Contributions

Basically, those people who are content in their relationship are those where the ratio of what they get out of it (benefit) versus what they put into it (contributions) is similar for both partners. This theory is all about equality, it’s the balance that counts. If Boris is benefiting from his relationship because Trixie earns a higher income, does most of the laundry and buys better birthday presents, he just needs to make a greater contribution, like mowing the lawn, breakfast in bed and the odd essential oil massage. Elizabeth and Mr Darcy are great examples, they complement and contrast, both benefit, both bend and compromise.

It’s when it becomes inequitable that problems arise. This ends up with one partner receiving more benefits (called the overbenefited, psychology does love labels, but at least they’re (usually) self-explanatory) while the other partner (yep, you guessed it, the underbenefited) receives fewer. Both scenarios, overbenefit and underbenefit, are unstable and often unhappy relationships. Maybe Boris stops mowing the now jungle-like front yard. Trixie (our now underbenefited) is likely to end up feeling angry and resentful because she’s giving more than she’s receiving. At the same time, Boris, as the over benefited partner, may feel guilty because he’s profiting unfairly. Although, as you’d expect, it’s more unpleasant to be underbenefited than overbenefited.

Interestingly, research has shown that these inequities are associated with negative emotionsin dating couples, married couples and long term friendships. The balance of the scales matters irrespective of the nature of the relationship, and how long it’s been alive and breathing.

The next theory is a little more complicated. Social Exchange Theory says that people are motivated to maximise benefits and minimise costs in their relationships. Put simply, relationships that are more satisfying provide more rewards and fewer costs. Rewards include love, companionship, consolation when life kicks you in the shins, and sexual gratification if that’s the sort of relationship we’re talking about (hello Edward). Costs include the work it takes to maintain the relationship, conflict, compromise and the sacrifice of opportunities elsewhere.

But, it’s not that simple. Our relationships don’t grow in a vacuum (that would make for a very boring book). People have backstory and wounds, plots take unexpected turns. We can summarise these complications under the following three factors:

  • Expectations – what we’re expecting to get out of this relationship. If you have high expectations it’s easier to be disappointed, if you have low expectations even a bad relationship can look pretty darned good.
  • Our imagined, or real, alternatives – our expectations of what we’d receive in an alternative situation. If the grass is looking a whole lot greener in the hot neighbour’s yard, then a person’s less likely to be committed to their current relationship. On the other hand, if a person feels they have few alternatives, they’ll tend to hang around, even in an unsatisfying relationship that doesn’t meet expectations. The key word here is ‘perceptions’. We see this most often in the first blush of love when we tend to see other prospective partners as less appealing and our rose coloured glasses can warp our partner’s characteristics.
  • Investment – the stuff we’ve put into the relationship that we can’t get back if the relationship ends. John and Jane have invested years of their life, the romantic or career opportunities they’ve passed up, they might have three kids, two dogs and seven goldfish. Investment increases commitment (Viktoria Beckham anyone?).

The intersections of all these factors can explain why women will stay in a domestically violent relationship, how people can stay married for decades, why people will leave after an affair…why some still stay. Fascinating, isn’t it? More importantly, all these points can add layers to your characters and their gut-wrenching growth over the span of your novel.

Ultimately they will be the foundation for the plot point that decides – should I stay, or should I go?

What do you think? Does this help in developing your novel? Did you weigh up your own relationships on the scales of these theories? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Have a wonderful week,


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