Should You Break Up With Your Partner?

Determining whether it’s best to stick with your relationship or end things is a tough decision. Knowing what’s right is hard, figuring out what’s best seems impossible. As difficult as it may be, the solution might just be deceptively simple: Flip a coin.

I know, I know…it seems too easy. First, a little background. In the book Think Like a Freak, economist Steven Levitt and his Freakonomics friend and co-author, Stephen Dubner, urge readers to think about the world differently. One way to do that is by training readers’ brains to approach complex problems in unique ways. Whereas many would suggest thinking “big picture,” they advocate for focusing on the smaller, more manageable (and more changeable) elements of a problem.

In the final chapter, “The Upside of Quitting,” Levitt and Dubner suggest that, contrary to what many people have told you in life, you should quit. When things get tough, you shouldn’t always tough them out and stick with it. Instead, it’s often better to quit and to do so sooner rather than later. Because many of us believe adages like “winners never quit and quitters never win,” we’re hesitant to give up. But that reluctance may hold us back.

Not wanting to quit lies at the heart of many tough decisions. To address this Levitt and Dubner describe a “Freakonomics Experiment” where readers submitted a tough decision they wanted help with. (You can see it in action here.) You might assume that since economists were behind this experiment, they would implement a fancy algorithm or formula to help readers make the most data-based decision. Nope…they thought differently and used a simple computerized coin flip. Despite the overly simplistic mechanism for making decisions (i.e., clicking a button that says “flip a coin”), readers submitted all types of questions. Some were about major life decisions (e.g., Should I ask for a raise? Should I quit my job?), whereas others were more mundane (e.g., Should I grow a beard?).

Of the questions readers asked, the most interesting to me was, “Should I break up with my boyfriend/girlfriend?” According to Think Like a Freak’s authors, over 200 people posed this question, which means that the Freakonomics Experiment was potentially responsible for about 100 breakups (i.e., 50% of 200). Of course, this assumes that the users adhered to the coin’s decision (according to the book, the majority reported that they went through with it).

Not only that, but those who made breakup decisions based on the coin flip reported that they were happy with the outcome. Think about how bizarre that is…roughly 100 people in a relationship broke up based on a random decision made by a computer and were generally happy about it. (Of course, some were happy with the decision to break up and some were happy with the decision to stay together. I’m intentionally glossing over that second possibility because I find the happy breakups fascinating and potentially counterintuitive/freaky.) The fact that users were happy is notable because the ultimate decision on the relationship’s fate wasn’t made by the user. Clearly, the user could have been unhappy with the outcome (i.e., they broke up with their partner and weren’t totally convinced they should).

It kind of makes you wonder if there is any research linking breakups and happiness, eh? Good! Now you’re thinking like a freaky relationship scientist. The coin-flip results suggest that people can break up and be happy about it, which is consistent with research findings. First, we know that people in relationships predict that they will be sadder about the breakup of their relationship than they are when it does actually break up.1 I also know from some of my own research that many people (about 2 out of 5) report that their breakup was positive.2 Maybe post-breakup happiness isn’t a completely freak occurrence.

There’s something else going on here as well. Who’s willing to submit their relationship’s future to a coin flip in the first place? Probably not people in fulfilling healthy relationships. Rather, putting your relationship’s fate in the hands of a coin flip probably says that you’re already having significant doubts. For example, if you’re willing to take a 50% chance of your relationship ending, it is quite likely that your relationship already has less commitment. Those with more commitment wouldn’t take the chance. We also know that relationships with less commitment are more likely to break up3, which may also explain why users were happy when the coin suggested ending the relationship. They knew a breakup was imminent and conveniently had a coin-flip to blame (“it’s not me, baby, it’s the coin”). Of course, that coin may be doing both partners a favor since having doubts about your relationship prior to marriage (i.e., “cold feet”) relates to less marriage satisfaction and a higher likelihood for divorce, especially for women.4

Ultimately, as far as your relationship is concerned, whether a virtual or real-life analog coin flip is the most effective way to make relationship decisions isn’t what’s most important. Rather, what may be most revealing is whether you would be willing to allow a coin flip to determine the fate of your relationship. Freaky.