Break Up (And Don't Look Back)

I don’t question my decisions after the fact (Strongly disagree … Strongly agree).   

We face important decisions as we enter, navigate, and end romantic relationships: "Are they the one?", "Can we make it in the long term?", and "Should I end it?” are some of the major ones. Today, I would like to specifically focus on the difficult, painful, and tricky decisions we face as we think about ending a long-term relationship.

Oftentimes, when people decide to end relationships, they tend to “leave the door open” and explore an ambiguous territory with their exes. They do this to make the decision of breaking up more reversible – a decision that can be undone in case they see a tiny bit of hope that makes it possible to repair the relationship.   

According to Logan Ury, a relationship scientist committed to applying behavioral science concepts to dating, such reversible decisions need to be approached with caution. It turns out that several researchers have looked into the relationship between the reversibility of a decision and the satisfaction associated with it.

In one of those experiments, researchers asked photography students to submit their favorite prints for an art exhibition. Students were offered two options: to make a definitive decision by a deadline (irreversible), or to have the opportunity to change their minds a few days after the deadline (reversible).  

Results showed that most students chose the reversible decision (the opportunity to change their minds). However, after the submissions, when students were asked whether they were happy with the decisions they’ve made, those that made the irreversible decision expressed greater satisfaction with their decisions than those that made the reversible one. Why is that?

Researchers explain this lower satisfaction associated with reversible decisions by increased levels of counterfactual thinking, which is imagining alternative scenarios associated with each of our options. When we allow ourselves to not commit to a decision, we stay in the decision-making state for longer.  

When we do so, we tend to focus on regret: Would we be better off if we’d made a different decision? We anticipate the regret associated with each of our options, and we keep speculating until we make a final decision. By the time we actually make a decision, we’ve already spent a good amount of time thinking about what might have been.  On the contrary, when we make an irreversible decision, our mind is better at rationalizing why we made that decision and convincing us that we made a good choice.

This isn’t to say that we should rush important life decisions, such as breaking up with our partners. However, it may be better for us in the long-term if we don’t question our decisions after the fact.’ So if you’re ever faced with a breakup, we recommend leaving that door closed– you (and your ex) will probably be better off.