Would you rather leave someone or be left at the altar?

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Picture this: It’s your big day. You and your partner have been planning your wedding for months — finding a venue, attire, designing invitations and bouquets, hosting rehearsals and showers and parties, the whole shebang.

And then, you find yourself on one end of the aisle, waiting with gleeful anticipation, and the music never starts.

Or how about this: you’re sitting in your dressing room with cold feet, unable to put on a smile or make yourself go through with the ceremony. Maybe you wished you skipped town the night before.

Drama, right? All that to say, today we’ll be taking a look at one of the most thought-provoking questions on the Marriage Pact questionnaire: Would you rather be left at the altar or leave someone at the altar?

The collapse of a hypothetical engagement comes with an assortment of consequences, both internal and external. There are a few major contexts through which we’re considering this question: emotional aftermath, social consequences, and the perspectives of Stanford survey respondents.

Being left Right off the bat, people make a lot of assumptions about this question. One of those assumptions is that the person being left is the one who isn’t in the moral wrong, as it’s someone else’s action inflicting pain. This assumed moral high ground informs the perceptions of the people around the would-be spouse. From a social context, the person who is left at the altar is granted the sympathy and pity of their friends and family.

However, being left in most contexts absolutely sucks. To be literally steps from committing to another person for the rest of your life, only for them to back out, would be soul-crushing.

When posed with this hypothetical situation, is it worth enduring the vulnerability and pain of being abandoned by a potential life partner in order to avoid being perceived as the bad guy? Is it enough to accept the pain of being left if it means knowing you weren’t the one putting your partner in that position?

Leaving Speaking of the bad guy, the assumption we make about the person leaving someone else at the altar is that that’s all they are. On the plus side, you aren’t the one being subjected to the heartbreak of a ruined relationship and ceremony. You’re leaving with your heart intact and of your own volition. However, to everyone around you, you’re now the person that abandoned their fiancé on their wedding day. That stigma could follow you across every relationship you have with friends, family, your ex, and even with your future partner(s).

Sure, you aren’t the one being hurt by the sight of someone you love and trust deciding they can’t go through with spending the rest of their life with you. But deciding that you’d prefer to leave someone rather than have them leave you means you’re saddled with the guilt of knowing exactly what you’re putting them through because, in an either/or situation like this, it’s what you’ve chosen to spare yourself from.

It’s hard to apply nuance to a hypothetical question. Of course, there are always reasons why someone might stay in a relationship longer than they should, or leave at an inopportune time. However, the question comes down to what you can rationalize — protecting your feelings and accepting the social stigmas of being the runaway spouse, or accepting the emotional devastation at the hands of someone you loved, knowing others won’t blame you.

What do the students have to say? With difficult questions come mixed answers.

On the Marriage Pact questionnaire, students gave their opinions on a scale of one to seven. On the left: be left at the altar. On the right: leave someone. The average answer at Stanford was 4.3.

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Responses from the 2021 Stanford Marriage Pact.

It seems Stanford wasn’t the only community that had a hard time choosing. This middling average was consistent with colleges across the country, like William and Mary (4.3 average), OU (4.4 average), University of Vermont (4.4 average), and GWU (4.5 average), for example.

Do demographics like religion, age, or political affiliation play into how students may answer this question?

Short answer… no. At Stanford, there wasn’t much variation in answers between religious, political affiliation, class year, or birth order, which speaks to the divisive nature of this question.

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Stanford students’ average responses to the question by birth order.

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Stanford students’ average responses to the question by class year.

So, instead of focusing just on the demographics of our questionnaire respondents, we took a look at how they answered other questions as well. When we evaluate questions together, we can begin to build better context to the data we do have.

With each question posed via a scale of one to seven, one representing completely disagree, seven representing completely agree, the higher that Stanford Marriage Pact participants answered on average for:

  • There is a place for revenge when someone has wronged me

  • Flirting is harmless

  • There is no such thing as unconditional love

  • I say what is bothering me, even if it might make my partner uncomfortable

… the higher their average answer on the get left/leave scale was, indicating a preference for leaving their partner at the altar.

Spicy.

But this tracks! Each of the questions we looked at to contextualize our leave/get left conundrum take into consideration several critical aspects of a person’s behavior in a relationship, such as one’s tendency to retaliate, their feelings of security, jealousy, and self-esteem, and their desire to communicate. The less secure, trusting, and open a person is, the more likely it is that they’ll work to protect their own feelings over someone else’s and choose to leave their partner at the altar instead of being left.

It’s easy to look at this question on the surface level and decide that one answer, leaving is self-serving and wrong, and the other, being left, is difficult but morally superior. However, with how decently split the opinions of college students all over are, the reality is that this question is nothing if not nuanced and complex, and we’re just as torn as you are.