By Lawrence Kaufman, Florida Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
7301 W. Palmetto Park Road, Suite 201A, Boca Raton Fl 33433-3456
How troubled, unhappy, and dissatisfied are you with your partner? How long have you been disillusioned and disappointed with, and ambivalent about him/ her? Do you find that you frequently alternate between feeling you want to stay in this relationship, or leave it? Do you sometimes feel confused by feeling highly motivated, at times, to do whatever it takes to make the relationship “work” — but at other times feel like you want to give up and stop the endless, repetitive, and fruitless struggles with your partner? Have you become frustrated with yourself for feeling so ambivalent – critical of yourself for not being able to make a decision – one way or the other? Do you feel like you can neither live with him/her nor without him/her? I suspect that many other people have similar feelings, conflicts, and doubts as you. So, what can you do about this painful, confusing, and distressing circumstance (condition)?
Many people traditionally turn to friends, family members, spiritual advisors, etc., for help, perspective, and advice concerning this enormously challenging dilemma. Other people tend to try to handle their problems on their own. While they have various motives for this, many people talk about not wanting to burden others with their problems, not expecting that others will be of much help to them, not wanting to give people the opportunity to interfere in their lives, and/or feeling embarrassed, ashamed, or weak that they are unable to resolve their personal and interpersonal difficulties on their own. Still other people turn to a variety of mental health professionals, nonprofessionals, agencies, and support groups for assistance.
So many emotional, family, social, financial, practical, religious, cultural and other issues may be involved with your efforts to make one of the most important decisions of your life. Because of these complicated and diverse pressures and considerations you may feel pulled towards two different, and sometimes conflicting, extremes. On one hand, you might wish to relieve yourself of emotion draining, ongoing upset and turmoil, by “just accepting” your present relationship the way it is; you may try to convince yourself that your alternative(s) would be worse. However, on the other hand, you might significantly increase and re-intensify your efforts to get your partner to change, so as to better meet your needs.
It Takes Two to Make It Work
It has been my professional experience that, at least initially, one partner is more motivated to work out the problems in their relationship than is the other. Usually, at the beginning of couple therapy, both partners seem to be convinced that most of the problems in their relationship are the fault of the other. They often want me to “fix” their partner, and explain to me how their partner is to blame (or mostly to blame) for their ongoing problems. Thus, they start out having a much greater awareness of their partner’s, rather than their own, contributions to the difficulties in their relationship. They frequently don’t realize how much they, not just their partner, need to change if they are to achieve the relational goals they want and desire.
“Nothing Seems to Work”
New clients of mine often tell me variations of the following: “I (we) have tried everything to make things better in our relationship, but nothing seems to work!” Couple therapy sometimes is a last-ditch effort to try to save the marriage/ relationship. Sometimes people have previously tried to improve their troubled, or not good enough, primary relationship by seeing therapists – but their best efforts have been disappointing at best, or have outright failed. Indeed, some people have been trying very hard for years to change their relationships back into ones that are closer to their ideal (or like the relationships they had [or thought they had] when they first fell in love with one another — or first became committed to one another).
When It Is Too Late
I often wonder how come many couples have waited as long as they have to first seek out the services of a professional couple therapist. (Sometimes people follow this same “strategy” with regard to facing medical problems or conditions they have.) Sadly, sometimes they have waited too long. By the time I first have the opportunity to work with them, their relationship has deteriorated so much — and they have wounded one another so frequently and deeply — that even the best therapists cannot help them put their relationship back on track again. As the expression goes: “Too much water has gone under the bridge.”
They have become emotionally disengaged, distant, and bitter for quite some time. They have experienced despair and hopelessness for much too long. They can be living only as roommates — with sex and friendship only distant memories. They may have resorted to engaging in relationship destroying affairs, domestic violence, emotional abuse, and/ or alcohol and other drug abuse, etc., and have cut their emotional ties quite thoroughly — sometimes years ago — with one another. At times, they have grown to intensely dislike — or even hate and detest one another. We can consider them to be emotionally divorced.
Not infrequently, they end their relationships dysfunctionally and destructively. Again, this is very sad and regrettable — especially since this state of affairs might have been prevented with earlier intervention (that is, with the help of a third party — as a competent professional).
In some instances, there could have been a much more positive and constructive ending to their relationship. In my view, even if one’s current relationship can’t be “saved,” much can be learned from doing a “psychological autopsy” on this failed relationship. This can be very beneficial for some individuals who hope to “do it better the next time.” That is, we all make mistakes and make poor judgments in our lives — (after all, we do the best we can with the knowledge and experiences we have at the time).
Sometimes the best we can do in the current moment is to learn from our previous mistakes, failures, and poor decisions. We can benefit by mourning the losses of how we lived our lives, what we could have done differently, and all the time that has passed by without enough happiness and satisfaction in our lives. Most of all, perhaps, we may need to more completely face and mourn the loss of our hopes and dreams for a lifetime with our partner. Eventually, we can summon up our courage and confidence to open ourselves up to finding another opportunity to do it (a close, intimate relationship) better the next time. Or we can decide to live life alone (at least with regard to having a partner in life).
Finding New Hope
Constructive endings (of relationships) can also be seen as containing seeds of constructive new beginnings. We then get back up after being knocked down (as in a “prize-fight”) and then create and take advantage of new opportunities to find happiness and satisfaction in a new, healthier, and better functioning relationship. At least then, something good can come out of something bad. The past doesn’t necessarily have to endlessly repeat itself. We can find a way out of our previously scripted, repetitive patterns. We can, to some extent, creatively reinvent ourselves. We can learn to re-author our self-scripts (the blueprints of our lives) to create a better, happier, and more fulfilling narrative and life story for ourselves.
The Dilemma of Staying or Leaving: Further Considerations
Now let’s get back to the central issue of this article: Is it better to stay in your (painfully) imperfect relationship and try your best to make it work, or “make the best of it,” or is it better to face the painful “reality” that your relationship is emotionally and psychologically over and beyond saving, and it is best to live your life without him/ her? Obviously, there are many trade-offs involved (including financial, emotional, practical, social, family related, etc.) no matter what you decide in the end to do.
You probably have gone over in your mind these opposing considerations. Perhaps at times you are in touch with a desperate need to get yourself out of the limbo of feeling torn, conflicted, and worn out by all your inner doubts (and perhaps obsessions) about what should be the best course of action for you to take. What are you to do when the advantages of staying in the relationship are just as convincing as the advantages of leaving the relationship?
Additional Ideas That Might Help You Make Up Your Mind
I now suggest that you step back from your seemingly opposite choices — your irresolvable dilemma — and consider additional options that you might have before you make your final decisions. Below are some further ideas and strategies for you to think about, or re-consider:
* Start working with a therapist — individually or jointly (that is, with both you and your partner present), preferably both — who specializes working with relationship issues.
* Read self-help books on relationship issues. One book you may wish to start with is Couple Skills (Second Edition): Making Your Relationship Work (2006), by Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, and Kim Paleg.
* Plan regularly scheduled meetings (dates) with you partner so that you can focus specifically on relationship issues between the two of you. (See my article entitled “Guidelines for Talking with Your Partner About Significant Shared Relationship Issues” for some helpful perspectives and ideas on this issue.) You might, for example, decide to spend every Sunday morning, from 9 – 9:30, talking about unresolved relationship issues between the two of you. In these discussions it would important for you to focus much more on process than on content. That is, put a priority on how you talk to one another rather than on what you talk about. One bottom line is that as a result of these intentional and focused conversations you will gain some very important information about both yourself and your partner, and about your shared relationship.
* Keep a daily, personal journal on the most important feelings, thoughts, experiences, and reactions you have had related to your primary relationship. When doing this, place the most emphasis on your emotions and feelings. Focus particularly on identifying, labeling, and expressing these feelings. If you have a concern about privacy, you can destroy what you have written after you have written it. It’s up to you to decide how much you choose to initiate discussions with your partner on these personal issues and reflections.
* Read the other articles on this website. They could help clarify some of the issues you are struggling with.
* Monitor more closely what you say and don’t say, and do and don’t do, in relation to your partner. Think more carefully about what impact you may be having on your partner — (not just the impact s/he is having on you.) This is an important “exercise” (or self-discipline) with regard to increasing your self-awareness. Consider significantly increasing the ratio/ proportion of positive comments (such as compliments and expressions of appreciation) you make to you partner versus negative comments (such as non-constructive criticisms and complaints).
* Carefully weigh practical and lifestyle (including financial, social, extended family) considerations versus emotional and psychological considerations. Also, be sure to fully and fairly explore all areas of your life — including your sex life, your spiritual and religious life, and the impact on your child/ children (if you have any) of staying or leaving your relationship.
* Consider whether or not you might want to try a trial separation prior to making your split permanent. Actually living through the experience, on a day-to-day basis, of not physically being with your partner, may provide you with valuable intellectual (cognitive) and emotional insights into your situation. Whatever decision you may come to in the end will then be the result of giving yourself the best opportunity to have fewer regrets, self-doubts, and guilt feelings later on.