In my work as a psychotherapist and my private life, I meet many people in various relational situations: people who find themselves in the middle of a divorce, who are contemplating divorce, who are confronted with divorce or separation without wanting to, or who are not happy anymore in the present relationship.
One of the most difficult questions people are confronted with is: to continue the relationship they are in, or not? The higher the stake, the more difficult the answer. Children, goods to share, emotional or financial dependency, experiences accumulated together over time, the stage of life we are in- these are all factors that weigh on our decision.
I would like to give you a simple answer, but it is not so easy.
If you are in such a position, most likely you have reached the moment when you realized that your partner is not the person you thought he/she was, or will become, he/she is no longer the person you see yourself building your future with. Generally, we tend to blame the partner, but I think that it is rather a combination of external and internal factors that impact a relationship and that it is often difficult to give a single reason to what has led to this crossroad.
Let’s look at these factors first:
On the individual level, each of us shows up in couple with a set of expectations. It’s an image that we have developed about relationships ever since we were little and that has developed over time, with other romantic experiences that we had.
The type of attachment (secure or insecure) we developed as children influences our willingness to communicate our needs and desires, to "open up" and show our vulnerabilities, to stay or to leave in a relationship.
Moreover, the type of relationship we have with ourselves plays a major role and influences the couple’s dynamic. Those who tend to rely more on the partner than on themselves can develop very unpleasant feelings like anger, jealousy, resentment, clinging or nagging and in time, these can keep us paralyzed when faced with the decision to stay or to leave the relationship.
Moving on to the couple, we must know that conflicts will arise in the dynamics of any healthy relationship. The extent to which we manage conflicts and then do the repairing work influences the possibility to return to an atmosphere of peace.
In addition to conflicts, loss of connection and trust, the roles we assume or not in the couple, unhealthy communication patterns, boredom, loss of the feeling of love - these are all factors that influence negatively a couple’s dynamic.
Finally, if we look at the system that is surrounding a couple, we notice another set of factors that can affect a relationship over time: the influence of the family of origin, or the entourage, socio-economic factors, cultural differences and even religion in some cases.
In other words, there is an entire system of variables, internal and external, visible or hidden that determines and influences the dynamics of a couple and thus, our decision.
That is why evaluating the short and long-term effect of our decision not only upon ourselves but also upon others, is something we should carefully consider.
The decision to stay or leave depends on how much we can accept in a relationship so that, at the end of the day, we can be happy with ourselves, with the choice we make. Each of us has their own limits and I have often been surprised to see how many compromises one can make in a relationship.
The decision also has to do with our self-confidence. Unfortunately, I’ve often seen people whose self-esteem is lowered due to the long history of conflicts behind them, or to the partner’s verbal or physical abuse. In such situations, my advice is to always look at your resources, look for people who genuinely care about you and that remind you of your strengths. Look for resources not only outside, but also inside, by showing self-compassion and understanding for yourself, because the last thing you need in such moments is to blame yourself.
As with every difficult decision that implies change, it takes a lot of awareness, patience and perseverance to go through the strong emotions associated with change. Fear, pain, sadness, disappointment, but also hope, excitement for something new are some of the common emotional reactions and the only way to go through them is to think in small and manageable steps and to give yourself time.
Finally, I would like to end by adding that through my work I’ve often seen that both parts are hurt and suffer when things don’t go well in a couple. Most of us are wired with empathy, but at times this is blocked by overwhelming emotions, especially when threatened to lose the person we love. Keeping this in mind could help us better understand our own and the other’s feelings and reactions.
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