Till Death Do Us Part?

September 1, 2018

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes … divorce? When the moment comes and you’re thinking about all of the exciting ways to announce your engagement online, where and how you want to celebrate the big day, and what you hope the rest of your life will look like, the last thing you’re probably thinking about is your marriage ending in dissolution and despair.

Even though a vast majority of people choose to get married for love and commitment, separation is a reality for roughly 2 in 5 couples. While measuring the exact rate of divorce is more difficult than expected, there’s one thing we can ascertain: the reasons long-term relationships end at all.

For a closer look at the less romantic side of “till death do us part,” we polled over 1,000 people currently dating, engaged, or married to find out what it would take to call the whole thing quits. From infidelity to social media faux pas and weight gain, we asked them to anonymously open up about relationship deal breakers and how age and even political opinions might change their perspective. Read on as we explore their answers and to what extent love and commitment really can change over time.

Speculating on Splitsville

It’s a sad but undeniable truth that not all love lasts forever. Even if things seem to be going great in the beginning, the closer you get to defining your relationship as long term, or are even thinking about settling down for good, the higher the chances that you might end up going your separate ways instead. But what are the actual reasons relationships sometimes fail instead of going the distance?

Among men and women, the most common reasons for calling it quits were related to infidelity, abuse, and identity. Roughly 4 in 5 people said they’d leave a partner or spouse who had an affair. While most women agreed with this, there was one other circumstance more likely to end their relationship: abuse. Over 86 percent of women said they would leave someone who hit them rather than trying to work it out. Over 73 percent of men and women would also leave their partner if they were transgender (which may be more common today among teens and adults), and nearly 57 percent of women and 47 percent of men would leave if their partner began questioning his or her sexuality.

Other reasons for ending a relationship were more superficial, however. Nearly as many men and women would leave their partner for complaining about their relationship online as would leave if their partner began exploring his or her sexual identity. While women were more sensitive to social media in their love life, nearly 47 percent of women and 36 percent of men would leave someone who wasn’t willing to acknowledge their relationship online, and roughly 1 in 4 would do the same if their partner never posted about their relationship via social media like Facebook or Instagram.

Feeling less attracted to your partner over time is something that can happen no matter how much you love each other, but for some people, it might be grounds for separation. Twenty-four percent of men and 11 percent of women agreed they’d leave someone who gained 30 pounds or more, and virtually as many would leave someone who lost a limb in an accident or to illness.

While most people felt confident that infidelity would mark the end of their relationship, this might not always be the case. Experts suggest that rebuilding trust after an affair can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible. Understanding why infidelity occurs can help couples work through their issues to a less finite resolution and may help explain why only 1 in 3 marriages ended in divorce after cheating.

Time Heals All Wounds?

For better or worse, relationships change over time. As you spend more of your lives together, get more comfortable being yourselves, and simply grow older, the landscape of your love can start to look different. In the same way that you might have less sex or be less worried about doing something embarrassing in front of each other, the manner in which you think about what it would take to really walk away can change too.

Less than a year into their relationship, 90 percent of people agreed that having an affair was grounds for breaking up. As they spent more time together, men and women were less sure that they’d be able to end things completely after infidelity, falling to roughly 81 percent after a decade or more together. A one-night stand was even less detrimental the longer a couple was together, as only 64 percent would break up with or divorce a person 10 years into their relationship. The same was generally true for physical abuse. While 81 percent of people would leave someone who hit them within the first six months of being together, only 74 percent of people who’d been with their partner or spouse for over a decade said the same.

The phrase “in sickness and in health” may be a common sentiment in wedding vows, but it doesn’t always hold true. For some couples, serious illnesses can actually be the cause of separation in the end. Within the first six months of being together, 38 percent of people would leave their significant other if they became paralyzed, and 1 in 4 would leave someone who became terminally ill. Further down the road of life, “till death do us part” may become a reality – less than 10 percent of people would do the same 10 years into their relationship.  

Both Sides of the Aisle

In recent years, the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats has gotten deeper and more turbulent. But politics aside, there are deep ideological differences between people who identify with a more liberal persuasion and those who consider themselves conservative. Those differences may also impact the way people approach their relationships.

Democrats were typically less tolerant of transgressions in their relationships. In response to physical violence, roughly 71 percent of people who identified as Republicans would decide to break up with their partners, compared to 79 percent of Democrats. In addition, Republicans were less likely to leave their partners after being lied to about their past or money, and they were even less likely to break up because their significant other wanted to change political affiliations.

Redefining Love

Younger people may have a different perspective on what their happily ever after looks like. Today, the average age for getting hitched has increased to 27 for women and 29 for men. In 2015, just 2 in 5 millennials got married. That may not necessarily be such a bad thing, though. Relationship experts suggest that waiting until later in life to tie the knot helps couples know they’re really in it for the long haul.

Spending more time dating could partially account for the reasons why millennials are less likely to leave their significant others over these relationship transgressions compared to older generations. Millennials were the least likely to leave someone who’d had a one-night-stand, was transgender, wanted an open relationship, or even developed a drug addiction. In some cases, that resilience could be dangerous, however. Compared to Gen Xers and baby boomers, millennials were the least likely to leave their partner if they ever became physically violent.

A Higher Power

There are plenty of outsides forces that can shape how you think about your relationship, significant other, and getting married. Like politics and age, how a person classifies his or her religious beliefs can deeply affect how they think about leaving someone over issues like infidelity or physical abuse.

In most cases, changing religions from the time they got together wasn’t instantly grounds for divorce or separation. People who identified as Jewish (73 percent) were the most likely to be tolerant of their significant other finding new spiritual guidance. Roughly 12 percent of people who classified themselves as Christian said they would either probably or definitely separate from their partner in the event of such a crisis in conscience.

The spectrum of social media’s potential impact on relationships also changed based on religious affiliation. It was Christian couples who were the most deflated when their significant others refused to post online about their relationships and Buddhists who were the most likely to take offense to negative complaints online.  


Everything Changes

Whoever you are and however long you’ve been with your significant other, there’s no denying that love changes over time. Even just getting completely comfortable around each other doesn’t happen overnight, and while sometimes these changes can help you grow stronger together as a family, in some cases, they might drive you apart. More subtle shifts in preference or personality weren’t usually a good enough reason to call their relationships quits, but changes in identity, abuse, and infidelity were.

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We surveyed 1,180 people aged 18 or older using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Of these, 157 were disqualified based on the study’s prerequisite for not currently being in a romantic relationship. Participants were asked to respond to several statements using a five-point (1 to 5) Likert scale, ranging from “I would definitely leave my partner” to “I would definitely not leave my partner.”

Statistical tests between genders and political affiliation were performed on raw Likert values using a two-sample, unequal variances t-test, a statistical test designed to assess significant differences between the averages of two populations. We considered any test significant if it gave a 99 percent or greater probability that the two sampled populations were different (p<0.01).

For an easier visualization, the raw Likert values were converted to percentages and reported as likelihoods under the assumption that “1” (I would definitely leave my partner) meant a 0 percent likelihood of staying together and “5” (I would definitely not leave my partner) meant a 100 percent likelihood of staying together. The remaining figures shown are based on self-reporting demographic data on gender, the duration of participants’ current relationships, political affiliation, and religious affiliation.

The survey we administered did not have any items in it that ensured participants were paying attention and answering thoughtfully, so it is possible a subset of respondents did not give the survey their undivided attention. Because this was a self-report survey, it is possible some participants either over- or under-reported how seriously they would take a particular relationship event.  Also, biases such as the social inclusion bias could have played a role in respondents somewhat tailoring responses to different notions of social norms.



Fair Use Statement

Feeling ready for a long-term commitment? Feel free to share the results of our survey with your readers for any noncommercial use. We only ask that you include a link back to this page so that our contributors get credit for their work too.

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