I recently watched a documentary on young people in America who were just about to get married. While you could excuse the enthusiasm for the process and starting a family (this appeared to be the only ambition in life for some of the women unfortunately), the language used by the couples appeared to be completely unrealistic in terms of what awaits them. The poor souls were using language like, “I have found the One”, “This is my forever love” and “I am looking to spend the rest of my life with my husband/wife”. Very sweet but the sad truth is that many of the couples portrayed do not stand a chance of a “forever love” happening and they will separate for various reasons in the coming years.
The question has never been about that. The divorce rate is so high globally that it has led to a decline in couples getting married. The question for me is when is the right time to make that choice? This is probably one of the hardest decisions that anyone would need to make in their life and it is influenced by many factors. Codependency, fear, romanticizing, fear of being alone, finance, children and a host of other issues. Many people stay despite being treated poorly and some even fear the judgment of friends, family and society at large. Separation means failure in many people’s eyes and we all know that the fear of failure is a hard one to face. It can be even harder when you are in your second or third throw of the dice and especially if you are getting older. We all fear living alone as an elderly person and ultimately dying alone. A fate that should not be visited upon anyone.
The idea of separating from your partner is, for many people an emotional choice. Logic very rarely plays a role, even sometimes in the face of infidelity or abuse. Much of this could be that many people are addicted to the early phases of a relationship (a neurological and biological process that changes the brain’s chemistry) and are forever hopeful that that person will return. Even in this heady stage, the emphasis on attraction and the often dire need to be in a relationship, will turn off parts of the brain that help us make a judgment about this new person. We just don’t see the “red flags”, or if we do, we ignore them. We equate being in a relationship with security replicating the family system we left.
Those ignored “red flags” will often come back to haunt the relationship later. We are not even talking here about such things as abuse and infidelity but basic compatibility. This is the main factor for a successful relationship. Being on the same page on most things and a willingness to work on those that you aren’t. This has to be done by both, not just by one. When this isn’t the case, it will soon dawn on one or the other (or both) that things are not going to work. What can you do in that situation? Here is what normally happens in my experience as a therapist:
- The issues are never faced and they simmer under the surface in terms of resentment, deeming the relationship null and void and the couple live together as flatmates.
- One or the other (or both) indulge in extramarital affairs.
- The relationship descends into a “cat and dog” scenario full of spite, blame and oneupmanship tactics like silent treatment and passive aggressive behaviour, anger and recrimination.
- The couple go through phases of trying (often in therapy) but they aren’t maintained.
- The couple live separate lives and are essentially divorced in all but name.
On top of this, the following results from being in an unhappy relationship:
Emotional suffering: Over time, an unpleasant relationship will start to produce more depression, irritation, frustration, and fatigue than happiness.
Conflict: Partners will start to view one another with disdain, annoyance, and criticism. They start to arm themselves during conversations with their partner rather than seeking solace in the connection. It may be more difficult to perform and uphold duties in other roles when there is emotional or even physical confrontation in unpleasant partnerships.
Withdrawal: People feel as though they are handling everything on their own, in addition to experiencing increased stress and conflict as a result of the relationship. In toxic relationships, couples turn into enemies, and the other person usually starts to reduce their efforts to make things better.
Frustration: People in unhappy relationships often distort their reality in an effort to hold on to the ideal of what they once were. Frustration and ongoing disappointment are a result of their attempts to twist the truth and their refusal to accept one another for who they are.
Negativity: You’ll start to feel that your relationship is weighing you down or affecting your interactions with other people.
Less attention paid to each other: In an unhappy relationship, you’ll notice a tendency to give other connections and hobbies priority over your spouse.
Reduced intimacy: Couples in troubled relationships often neglect to spend time getting close physically or emotionally.
Broken connections and communication: In troubled relationships, there is a clear breakdown in communication because the partners are unable to resolve issues or deal with damaged feelings. These partners will start to live separate lives from one another as there are considerable obstacles to truly connecting.
Focus on the outside world: Partners will start looking to other people and places for support and to meet their needs.
Why would anyone in sound mind put themselves through any of the above? There are many factors but one that resonates is how our mind convinces us to stay. Healthy relationships are not rooted in guilt, shame, detrimental obligation or blind loyalty. Many of us struggle to leave because we don’t want to let our partner down or break a promise. This anxiety might be combined with our concern about our partner’s future. Sometimes it boils down to not trusting the person’s capacity to live their lives without us – and consequently the prioritization of their needs over our own.
Additionally, if we have convinced ourselves that we love someone and cannot envision our lives without them, we may stay. Strong devotion to our spouse and to our future with them can cause us to disregard warning signs. Even when the relationship is not a good fit, our connection to our partners, their family, or their children may make it more challenging to end it.
Humans are creatures of habit. Once you find something that works and that makes you feel comfortable, you fight to keep it. For most people it’s just easier to stay. That’s the default. The box is safe and familiar. Change is scary and ending a relationship means change.
So what can you do? If the above is your situation and you have tried many times to resolve issues, the first step is to acknowledge clearly that you are unhappy (mostly to yourself). Look logically at what is really happening in the relationship. Ask questions such as “Am I happier when my partner/spouse is not around?” “Am I staying because I fear change or out of obligation?” “Am I getting my needs mostly met or am I withholding meeting theirs?” “ Am I unhappy and feel hopelessness in the relationship?” “ Is this a constant cycle?”. Such questions (and others) will help bring clarity. This process must be genuine and a true reflection of your wishes.
Once you have done the work above, have the talk with partner or spouse. I am assuming here that physical abuse, controlling or coercive behaviour is not present. In these cases, get out quickly and don’t go back. In normal circumstances, communicate clearly to your partner your reasons for wanting to end the relationship. Be clear because many relationships lurch from one break-up to starting over many times, meaning that the reasons were not well thought through properly. Be kind and compassionate but firm.
When this is done, it is time to regulate logistics. This might be where you need external help or guidance. Finance, children, new place to live and a new life are all things that must be faced. This is the practical, logical part of the process but a very important one that will set up your new life.
Deal with emotions and grief. The emotional side of a breakup is often a reason why people stay. It is important to allow yourself to feel and process emotions and what they might be telling you. It is not a time to jump into something new but to do the individual work needed to move on. Beware the rebound relationship which is often built on fantasy and instant gratification. This is where a trusted friend or professional can help.
Work towards YOU. Many of us lose ourselves in relationships and we deny ourselves our individuality. Moving towards bringing that back is a process that needs to be worked through by adhering to our personal values (or finding them). During this phase, many lessons will emerge that will help us next time. This phase might take some time depending on the severity of the breakup.
Making the decision to end a relationship is never an easy one, particularly if you care about the other person in the connection. You have to be willing to take some calculated risk if you want to have a romantic partnership that is truly joyful, healthy, and satisfying for both parties involved. It is unhealthy for you, your partner, and the relationship to remain in an unhealthy relationship for any reason other than genuine affection for the other person. Staying in a relationship out of fear, guilt, or any other reason is damaging.