Should I Stay or Should I Go? The Investment Model of Relationships

While it may not happen consciously, everyone does a cost-benefit analysis of their relationship in difficult moments. What considerations lead people to stay or leave their relationships? 

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #28
The Quick And Dirty

The Investment Model helps us consider whether or not to continue in a relationship. It includes three primary elements: 

  1. General relationship satisfaction.
  2. The quality of alternatives to their current partner (who else they might reasonably be able to date).
  3. The amount they have invested in their relationship (this includes time, money, and energy).

We all have that one friend who constantly complains about their partner, but won’t actually leave the relationship. A perfect example of a relationship that seems obviously flawed to others, but not to the couple themselves comes from The Office. Pam was engaged to Roy for several years, despite not seeming particularly happy in the relationship. Why did she stay with him for so long? What might she have been considering when choosing to stay? The Investment Model of relationships can help us answer these questions.

The Investment Model of Relationships

In the Investment Model, an individual’s commitment to a romantic relationship depends on their relationship satisfaction, how they perceive the quality of alternative romantic partners, and their current size of investment into the relationship.

As you might notice, some of these terms sound like a business transaction. Quality of alternatives can be thought of as opportunity costsin other words, what potential partners are you missing by staying in the relationship? Size of investment can be thought of as sunk coststhat is, should you stay with someone because you’ve already put in a lot of time, energy, and money into the relationship?

Let’s think back to Pam and Roy, and how each aspect of the Investment Model contributed to Pam staying with Roy (at least for a few seasons):

  • Relationship satisfaction: It seems like Pam’s satisfaction in the relationship is quite low. On their first date, Roy and his brother leave Pam at a hockey game when she goes to the bathroom because they forget about her—which is an apt metaphor for the state of their entire relationship. They are engaged for several years, but in spite of Pam's frequent remarks that she expects to be married soon, they never set an actual date. Roy sometimes says insensitive things and isn't supportive of her desire to pursue a career in art which ultimately leads to Pam's dissatisfaction and a desire to leave the relationship. 

  • Quality of alternatives: Pam has a crush on her co-worker Jim and there is clearly chemistry between them. Jim is a potential romantic partner, however, Pam does not know that Jim thinks of her as a potential partner, especially when he is dating other people. Although we, the audience, know that Pam has a high quality potential partner, she is dubious about Jim's viability. This creates doubt for Pam when she considers leaving her relationship.

  • Size of investment. Pam and Roy have a long history. They are high school sweethearts who now live together and are planning a wedding. Pam has sunk a lot of time and energy into the relationship, and it may feel very risky to start over with someone new. There is somewhat of a sunk cost fallacy at play here—because she has spent years in this relationship, leaving now would mean she wasted all of that time. So, with a large investment of time, energy, and money, Pam has a high motivation to stay in her relationship with Roy.

Now, most people don’t go through this detailed cost-benefit analysis of their relationship.  But the Investment Model can help explain a lot of relational phenomena.

For example, it used to not be well understood why individuals stay in abusive relationships. To the outside observer, it may seem obvious that a person should leave their hurtful partner. But for the people involved, it isn’t always so simple. The Investment Model can help us understand why some people stay in these difficult situations. They may perceive that if they leave the relationship, they will have few potential alternative partners, lose a sense of financial stability, and miss out on the satisfying moments in their relationship.

The perception of the size of your investment in the relationship can lead to some potentially problematic thinking. For example, if you have been in a relationship for several years, it is easy to think of that as “wasted time,” which leads many of us to stay in unsatisfactory relationships, simply so that all of our time and energy isn't for naught. 

Instead of perceiving former relationships as “wasted time,” we can reframe them in a more positive light. Think of it this way: The time and effort you put into former relationships led you to learn what you truly want and what you truly don’t want out of a romantic partner.

For example, Pam found that she wanted someone who shared a similar sense of humor and who would encourage her to pursue her hobbies. Her relationship with Roy helped her identify the kind of partner she was looking for, and the things she wanted from a future relationship. It is possible that without her relationship with Roy, her relationship with Jim would have been different (or non-existent). 

Applying the Investment Model to your relationships

While it may not happen consciously, everyone does their own cost-benefit analysis of their relationship in difficult moments. When you’re observing a relationship from the outside, it can be difficult to understand why someone would continue to stay with a partner who doesn't meet their needs. 

Ultimately, this model provides a way to explain some difficult decisions you might be considering with your relationship. Perhaps you are generally unsatisfied with your partner, or you feel there are other options out there that would be better than your current partner. Maybe you are having a hard time leaving because you feel like you have put so much into the relationship that it would be disappointing to leave now. Whatever it may be, the Investment Model offers a way to have difficult conversations or identify the concerns you are feeling.

Citations +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD

Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt is the host of the Relationship Doctor podcast. She is a relationship scientist whose research examines how we communicate in our romantic relationships. Specifically, she studies how we communicate in our romantic relationships as we age and our relationships mature, particularly during conflicts that are difficult to resolve. She believes that we can all benefit from evidence-based recommendations about how to have healthy and happy relationships.

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