Our greatest life decisions are always made on the basis of incomplete information. ~Sheldon Kopp, psychoanalyst and author
Probably the most difficult decision we’ll ever make in our lifetime is deciding to stay or leave a life partner when the relationship has been continually unfulfilling. Certainly the right decision is generally unclear to us. Most of us can’t even stand the thought of ever separating from a loved one even when we are continually unhappy. We automatically put our own happiness on the back burner and stay loyal to the bitter end. We deny how bad things really are. This is a big mistake. It’s far better to honestly evaluate your life satisfaction in a relationship and after considerable scrutiny and self-examination — perhaps with the aid of trusted helpers — make an informed decision on your own behalf. Realize you are part of your marital problems and it is best to use a competent marital counselor to see how likely is it that you can resolve these problems together. This is typically the best way to know what you are facing. Perhaps it is best for you to stay and embrace the security of a known relationship or perhaps it is far better to wish your mate well and move on to being single again. Taking the time to authentically examine your relationship is always the best way to go. The best expert is yourself if your eyes and heart are wide open.
If you are questioning your sanity of staying in an unloving relationship congratulate yourself. At least a shred of you has some self-esteem left that still feels like saving yourself. It takes real courage to even ask the question whether to stay or leave and it is a testimony to something deep inside yourself that actually cares about the quality of your life. You still have a lot of life worth living and it’s never too late to start. I say, “Bravo!” and “Keep questioning.” You owe it to yourself. Too many of us don’t even evaluate our happiness and we roll over dead in our lives. Good for you! Now let’s see if I can help you in your questioning process.
Why now and why not earlier?
When we are questioning whether to leave or stay it usually shows. We become more irritable with our partner and less tolerant of the usual antics of a loved one. We wish to spend less time together and more time with cherished friends. We may start acting single even while unconsciously tied down in a Gordian knot with a spouse. We may day dream about being free again and simultaneously freak out at being alone and responsible for our own happiness. Yet we are always responsible for our own happiness, tied down or not. Perhaps this conundrum of deciding has arisen from a new life circumstance. Our children may be grown now, we are more able to financially support ourselves or we dread the thought of having to care for our unloving partner well into his or her old age. Many women have put too much of their happiness and fulfillment on hold as they take care of other people’s happiness. They may feel their later years are finally a time to have their own voice and make themselves happy. It is finally their time to be a person and focus on themselves. Most men have been clueless about the value of emotional intimacy and how it helps them mature. Finally in their later years they get it and they wind up stuck with a partner who has never been close to them and doesn’t know how to be close. Most of us are in for some shocking inconveniences and awesome opportunities as we age, whether we like it or not! We’re no longer tied down by distractions. That’s why we question our long-term relationships.
The other reason we think about leaving a life partner is internal. The pain of what we have been living with all these years finally makes us sick to our stomach. It becomes too much to bear. Perhaps we have had a deeply caring relationship with a friend outside our marriage and we finally know what we are missing. Knowing we are not free to fully embrace a new found happiness may be the last straw as we question what to do next. Perhaps we didn’t see this earlier because we were too busy leading busy lives raising children, being the major breadwinner or getting lost in the fog of fitting in with our neighbors.
Knowing when it’s time to leave
Nobody knows better whether it’s time to leave than you do. You are the expert on yourself. Even when you are confused. Never allow some self-appointed expert to tell you what to do, including me. Make your own decisions. Look inside your own heart for answers. Here are some guidelines: if your heart continually feels discouraged, heavy and alone around a lover and you have made numerous efforts, either with counseling or not, to repair things with a partner, then it’s likely a good time to split. If you or your partner persistently lack the ability to understand other people’s feelings or don’t care to, then it’s best to call it a day and focus on your own happiness. It’s probably long overdue. If the apathy and betrayals in your relationship have mounted up, it’s best to press the restart button and leave. If your partner shows little interest or ability to get close to you despite major problems then it’s best to start your new life alone. If your partner has been violent with you and is unwilling to get specialized help for anger control, then the door is your best option ASAP. If a reputable marriage counselor and you yourself decide your problems as a couple are too big to solve together, then it’s best to believe this feedback and leave. Some differences and problems between people are too big to resolve. Some of us are just not ready to be in long-term intimate relationships and being apart with love is a way better and more humane way to go.
But what about my life partner?
Clearly it’s not easy to walk away from a life partner, at least in most cases. You will feel like a real heel if you leave to have a life of your own. Your guilt may be written all over your face when you tell him or her the bad news. But tell your partner in person anyway. You are not responsible for your partner. He or she is an adult. In fact you have a bigger responsibility to yourself to seek out what your own life is really about, perhaps long overdue for you. Your friends can support you with their love. Pursuing what gives us meaning while caring for others will make you happy. Remember that separating from a spouse doesn’t necessarily mean you will have nothing to do with him or her or inlaws. You are simply renegotiating the contract of an old dysfunctional relationship. And you can do so without your partner’s consent or agreement. As Shakespeare said, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” He is talking about loving yourself.
When is it best to stay?
On the other hand it may benefit you to stay committed in an otherwise dead relationship. Some research says that staying in a bad marriage over the long haul can heal us in ways we never would predict and make us happy as we learn to primarily rely on friends for happiness. Perhaps the healing factor comes with learning forgiveness and self-care at a deeper level. It’s like finding joy in your team losing every year. Eventually both partners may wake up and realize that their union, while troubled, is a testimony to their commitment and loyalty and may in fact underlie their deeper underlying love for each other. Staying in an unsatisfying relationship really teaches us how to suffer, which is not always bad for us. I am not a big fan of this philosophy. It hurts my body too much to suffer in a bad relationship. But hey, who am I to say what’s good for you!
There may be powerful external factors that limit your ability to leave. If your adult children are totally opposed to your leaving their other parent, if you fear losing the friends and family that support your marriage, if your partner has a life-threatening disease that requires your support or if you are too immature to live on your own, then staying may be the best option for you, at least for now.
Why do we sit on the fence and not decide?
Some of us are fairly certain what is in our best interest in terms of leaving or staying. But we just can’t make the move to take care of ourselves. We endlessly sit on the fence and complain about our partner to friends who undoubtedly hate us after a while. Please realize that sitting on the fence means that we are not ready to face something threatening inside ourselves. It takes two to tango in a relationship. If we separate from a partner we will have to give up our own dysfunction that got reinforced by the dysfunction in our partner. Some of us are not ready to give up our own dysfunction, so we hang on to our partners endlessly well beyond the expiration date. When we say, “I wonder how my partner will make it without me” we are really talking about ourselves. Dysfunctional partners actually do better on their own without our “help.” Trust me on this one.
Some of us are weighed down by practical considerations and become inert. Men who are financially successful and tied to a spouse may be reluctant to pay alimony or give up half of their retirement and decide that suffering is better than separating. Wives may stay in a bad relationship when they aren’t sure of getting a favorable divorce settlement. Furthermore, some women who don’t want to face the deep loneliness of their marriage and their own unfulfilled neediness may overdo grandmothering to the exclusion of their own needs. Distracting yourself with excessive grandparenting, while often meaningful and socially rewarding, may block you from fully knowing yourself or making relationship decisions. Any of these hidden factors may keep us in a pattern of endless indecision and emptiness.
Taking steps to decide
Tell yourself that you want to decide one way or the other. Obviously this choice will take time, personal self-reflection and support from others. All you have to do now is take one step. You might try out some decision by sharing your indecision with a close friend, sit quietly by yourself and imagining what it would be like to be on your own again, examine your body sensations when you describe your current relationship to a partner, take a weekend away to be all on your own and see if that works for you or how it frightens you. You might need to repeatedly take these small steps. Just do something! Remember the goal here is to focus on yourself — not on the failings of your partner. Realize the biggest challenge here is facing the dysfunction in yourself that keeps you in this relationship and giving it up and possibly be happy. What a thought! Sheldon Kopp, a famous psychoanalyst, once said it better, “We prefer the security of know misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity.” Undoubtedly you will get nervous and simultaneously excited if you try changing. That’s how you know it’s the right thing to do! If you opt to leave realize that you don’t necessarily have to give up all of your old friends and family ties. Those that truly love you will support you. Also be prepared for surprises as you may decide that staying with your partner is the best way to go. Your small step will help you one way or the other.
Above all else, get support from people who have no vested interest in your decision one way or the other. Find a therapist or trusted friend who accepts you no matter what you decide and stay in relationship with this person or persons through the whole process. Trust your selfishness. It is healthy and leading you and your loved ones wisely to a better life. Keep in mind the adage that “The unexamined life is really not worth living.” If this article has made you too nervous put it on the shelf for later reference. You may decide to read, Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay (Penguin Books, 2014) by Mira Kirshenbaum for further reflection at a later point.
When I faced this decision in my own life it was the best decision I’ve ever made. It changed my life well beyond what I ever imagined. And I’ve never looked back (although it was hard at first). Perhaps you can do the same. In any case please accept my warmest regards.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.