Should you stay or go?

Do you know what it takes to make a relationship work? And how do you know when efforts to do so are futile? If you’re wondering whether ending your relationship is — or was — the right thing to do, or whether you can make a troubled relationship work again, read on.

Mars and Venus: Advice from John Gray

Can your relationship be saved? As a practicing clinical psychologist, this is one of the most commonly explored issues that I have dealt with in my office over the past three decades. Here are just a few responses people gave when I asked why they would need to read an article about whether or not their relationship could be saved:

  • “To learn how to change my partner so that we can have a happy life together.”
  • “To see if there is any stone left unturned before leaving.”
  • “For the children.”
  • “To see how something that once felt so right now feels so wrong.”
  • “I just realized why I have been so angry and depressed lately, and now want to figure out what — if anything — I can do about it.”
  • “It doesn’t feel like there’s any more between us, but I can’t afford to leave, so maybe I can find a way to salvage our marriage.”
  • “I want children, my partner (whom I love) doesn’t. It is crunch time and I need to decide whether to leave now in order to have the option of possibly getting this need fulfilled in some other way, or by someone else.”
  • “My partner is not a raging alcoholic, a child molester, or abusive in any way for that matter — yet I am just not happy anymore.”
  • “We love each other, but we’re just not in love anymore.”
  • “I cannot stand the abuse any longer.”
  • “The kids have grown, but we haven’t. I feel chronically unfulfilled.”
  • “To see if there is a way to have a life — regardless of whether I stay or leave.”

Could any of these statements have been made by you? If not, then how would you answer the question: “Can your relationship be saved?”

Maybe you’re feeling alone — or even odd — because you’re pondering the direction you are going in your relationship? Let me assure you how normal relationship ambivalence has become!

We all know that the divorce rate looms around 50%. And that doesn’t include people who live together and break up; people who are in long-term (non-live-in relationships); those who are in short-term relationships that can feel as emotionally intense as any marriage ever could; and those who stay in marriages and other long-term relationships that they describe as totally unsatisfying and unfulfilling. Add to that all those whose relationships have come very close to ending, for one reason or another, but have found a satisfactory resolution for both partners. Come to think of it, I can’t imagine that there are very many of us who haven’t been at this crossroad at some time, with one relationship or another.

Sometimes, both partners in a relationship make the decision jointly about whether to continue or split. At other times, one partner makes it all alone. Indeed, if you were to ask me to make the one single most accurate statement regarding relationships, it would have to be this: for a relationship to begin — or to continue — there has to be a degree of desire, effort, or at least collaboration on the part of both partners; but for a relationship to end, all that is needed is for one partner to want it to end. But as long as the door is open even a crack, it is, at the very least, theoretically possible to turn things around.

The two main pillars of relationships that work

Before going any further, let’s set up a frame of reference for looking at this issue. In my book, The Art of Staying Together: A Couple’s Guide to Intimacy and Respect (Hyperion/Avon, 1993), I highlighted what I believe are the two most important components of relationships that work: passion and comfort. Long-term relationships that serve the needs of both partners do so because they have an acceptable degree of both passion and comfort. Let’s look at these two ingredients:

  • Passion is all the romantic and sexual energy that gets you together as a couple in the first place. Passion is a great motivator. It prompts you to open your heart to someone, and is the stuff upon which longing, desire and certain types of intimacy are built. But passion alone cannot keep a relationship together.
  • The second component is what I call comfort. Comfort is the ability to work things out, to enjoy each other’s company, to respect each other, to share a common lifestyle, goals, and values (financial, children, work schedules, etc.) and to live a peaceful and contented co-existence.

When it comes to making a commitment to each other, passion is the part of you that commits from the heart. However, it is your brain that determines whether your relationship provides you with a sufficient degree of comfort to warrant the commitment. Maintaining a sufficient degree of passion and comfort — for each of you — is really a lifelong job.

Troubled relationships

There are three main categories of troubled relationships (which account not only for that alarmingly high divorce rate, but also the much higher percentage of significant non-married relationships which end). They include relationships that are stormy, that have become characterized by indifference, and those of a one-sided nature.

A stormy relationship is generally one that has plenty of passion, but not necessarily of the positive kind. Of course, positive passion is what we think of when we picture a relationship at its best. But when there’s an excessive amount of negative passion of the variety seen in stormy relationships, the result is a tremendous amount of anger and discomfort. At the extreme, these relationships can become abusive and even dangerous. A relationship with a lot of passion and little or no comfort can still be — and quite often (but not always) is — highly charged romantically and sexually. In some cases the most passionate sex actually occurs after the meanest and most volatile arguments. Sometimes anger even takes on the characteristics of “foreplay” for some of the best sex! This happens because after a nasty battle there’s often an apology, which can temporarily feel as if the issue is resolved (which, of course, it isn’t). The act of making up then leads to tender, romantic, and passionate feelings. Thus, negative passion turns into positive passion. The sad part is that the situation responsible for so much of the anger is never dealt with or resolved. Thus, the pattern can continue indefinitely. Ironically, most couples who follow this pattern often don’t realize that the “reward” of sex as a resolution to the fight could actually be the reason why they fight so much!

The second category is of troubled relationships that become indifferent. In this case, most — if not all — of the passion is missing. And although there can be a very comfortable living arrangement, partners may have little feeling or sexual desire for each other. Sometimes partners simply grow apart without anger, or there can even be as much anger present as there is in the typical stormy relationship. The main difference is that there’s just not the tendency to argue or do battle with each other. This may be a result of the partner’s personality styles, or the absence of passion altogether — including negative passion. Instead, the relationship merely begins to die a slow and quiet death. In other words, it may be brain-alive but heart-dead. (In contrast with a stormy, passionately driven relationship without sufficient comfort that is heart alive, but brain dead.)

Finally, there are one-sided relationships. In these cases, one person usually puts out much more effort and energy toward the maintenance, nurturing, and survival of the relationship than does the other one. In a one-sided relationship, one partner can be quite content — having all the passion and comfort he or she needs — while the other partner feels somewhat or totally unfulfilled.

In all types of troubled relationships, it’s important to ask: “What is the potential for change?” If the answer is “none,” the next question to ask yourself is, “Is this still where I want to be?”

What are your problem areas?

Now let’s explore your problem areas. What are the problems that now exist that have the potential to bring your relationship to an end? Reflect on your current relationship. Make a list of the issues and problems that are prompting you to ponder if your relationship can be saved.

What are the issues and problems that have brought you to this point? When did they begin to become problematic? What may have initially precipitated the situation?

Take a pen and paper out and list as many answers to these questions as possible. If you’re not sure what to write down at this point, that’s okay. In this article, I’ll be suggesting numerous ways for you to explore these often-difficult questions. But before giving you some of my ideas regarding what your problem areas are, take the time now (before reading the rest of this article) to make a record of how you see your relationship at this point. It will be helpful for you to refer to this initial list later on.

Potentially threatening problem areas

See which, if any, of these you can identify with:

  • Is your partner having an affair (or do you think so)?
  • Has your sex life been disappointing? (For example, you are no longer sexually attracted to your partner.)
  • Are you unable to communicate about important issues or areas of your relationship?
  • Is there physical or emotional abuse?
  • Is there an unusually thorny issue or ongoing problem (that you have been unable to resolve) that seems to be poisoning or undermining your total relationship or aspects of your relationship unrelated to that problem?
  • Are either or both of you excessively or obsessively jealous?
  • Have you lost trust for your partner?
  • Have you lost respect for your partner?
  • Has your relationship ceased to be a source of fun for you?
  • Does your partner seem chronically unhappy with you in a way that you cannot satisfy him or her?
  • Is there too much dependency or smothering in your relationship?
  • Are there too many rules (that don’t work for you) that you need to live by in order to make your relationship work?
  • Do you experience your partner as rejecting you no matter what you do?
  • Did you have thoughts of calling it off the day of or the day before your wedding? (Perhaps you went through with the wedding only because it felt too late to call it off as opposed to reconnecting with your desire to marry).
  • Have you and your partner lost (or never had) the ability to work out conflict?
  • Have you and your partner been unable to adjust to a major change in your lives (such as the arrival of a new baby)?
  • Is your partner insisting on a lifestyle change that is totally unacceptable to you?
  • Is this relationship incompatible with pursuing what you see as your life purpose or next steps toward that purpose?
  • Have you simply stopped growing together?
  • Is there a drug or alcohol problem that looms over your relationship — mild to severe?

You may now wish to revise your “problem list” and include some of your answers to the above questions.

Then and now

The title of a popular Off-Broadway play captures one of the most common sentiments I’ve seen: I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.

If you’ve discovered that perhaps you’re no longer growing together, it can be useful to look at how you got together in the first place, and how your initial attraction to each other may have given way to a sense of frustration.

You could be seeing your partner very differently these days than when you first met him or her. You may now be irritated by traits that perhaps you initially found to be irresistible! In other words, there’s a lot of truth to the cliche: “Be careful what you ask for.” First impressions are important. Very often they are the beginning of the fantasies of what you expect from each other. When I ask people to share with me their first impressions of someone with whom they are having difficulties now, I often get what was predictably a preview of how the relationship is today:

  • “When I first met him on that rainy day, he offered me his umbrella and was so kind. I had this great fantasy of him taking care of me, something that my ex never would do. But soon after we became involved, he started acting controlling, judgmental, and condescending toward me; he began to treat me as though I were inadequate.”
  • “My first husband was extremely hard-driven and unavailable. So I left him to hook up with my yoga instructor — someone who personified the exact opposite. But he turned out to be so laid back and unambitious that I totally lost respect for him.”
  • “My first wife was so clingy and possessive that I often felt like I couldn’t breathe. Then I met my present wife. She was extremely accomplished professionally. Her independence really turned me on. But she has now become so distant and aloof that I feel totally insignificant to her. The funny thing is that she really didn’t change, only my perception of her did.” (Great insight!)
  • “My partner had some real problems related to her past that I recognized unmistakably when we were dating. But I really thought that our relationship and my love for her would smooth them out. What I found after we got married was that those dark sides even got darker.”

When initial attraction is present, quite often the glass is half full. But when initial attraction leaves, that same “glass” becomes experienced as half empty. So consider some of these questions regarding how your relationship has evolved:

  • If things have changed, was that change predictable (given a second look at those traits that initially attracted you)?
  • Is it possible that things were always this way, but you didn’t notice (when looking through those “rose-colored initial-attraction glasses”)?
  • Did you ignore the warnings? (Example: Your partner tells you she doesn’t want children, or he has a hard time being monogamous.) Is it that you may not have heard certain clues?
  • Did you fall for Mr./Ms. Right or Mr./Ms. Right Now? (In other words, were you very needy at the time when you hooked up? Perhaps in a rebound relationship where, in hindsight, you now recognize that your new partner at the time represented little more than a strong dose of “anesthesia” for the pain of a relationship you were ending?)
  • Is it possible that you were never really attracted to your partner, but wanted the relationship for reasons other than attraction (or liked him or her so much that you were willing to overlook the attraction factor then), and now find it unacceptable that there is little or no sexual desire?
  • Did you marry (or commit to a long-term relationship) because of who your partner is (this doesn’t change very much), or because of what he or she can do for you (this does tend to change)?
  • Why did you hook up (or get married) when you did? (See if you can get back into that frame of mind to see what you were thinking and feeling when the relationship was at its best.)
  • Are there other factors that not only got you together, but also kept you together to this point that you may not be acknowledging?
  • What are the strengths of your relationship? (That is, what in your partner would you absolutely not want to change — even now?)
  • Could a major part of the problem be perfectionism? (One man recently shared with me his wife’s comments after she refused to go into counseling with him: “If we need counseling we should simply get divorced. Period!”) Thus, is any imperfection — real or perceived — enough to make you or your partner question, negate, or even bolt the relationship?

After you have reflected on these questions, and maybe added some to your list of issues, you may want to go through them again — only this time as your partner, and take a look at them as they apply to you.

Warning: this can be a powerful eye-opening exercise.

Continuing your relationship assessment

As you continue to reflect upon where things are in your relationship now, here are a few additional questions designed to aid you in your understanding:

  • What was your relationship like when it was at its best?
  • When and how did things first change?
  • How have you changed within the relationship?
  • How has your partner changed within the context of the relationship?
  • How would you describe your relationship at its worst?
  • What have you tried to do to make it better?
  • What has worked?
  • What has not worked?
  • What do you believe you really want now (as opposed to what you should want or would merely accept)?
  • Are you still (even just sometimes) able to enjoy some of the activities together that made your relationship blossom at the beginning? Or have you simply let the fun and enjoyable activities you once shared go by the wayside (and then, perhaps, think of them as more of those unpleasant realities of day-to-day living)?
  • How do you feel when you’re with your partner? Do you like the person you are when you’re with him/her, or has the relationship begun to bring out those traits that you like the least about yourself? If that is the case, does your self-esteem suffer when you are around your partner?
  • Have you stopped growing — both individually and as a couple — in each other’s presence? For example, are you still able to support and enhance each other in important areas of your lives? Or are the parts of your life that you feel best about those that tend to be disconnected from your partner?
  • Has your partner done something you consider unforgivable, such as having an affair or lying to you about something really important?
  • Do you see your partner as an unacceptable parent?
  • Could you say that your relationship is one that was really destined to be only a short-term one (but is now disguised as — or mimicking — a mature, long-term relationship)? Or, to put it another way, was it good at the beginning when you had that great infatuation and effortless initial passion, but then did it simply go downhill from there? If so, is it possible that you mislabeled that infatuation (which generally decreases over time) as something more than it really was, such as love and intimacy (which is more likely to grow)?
  • Has your partner squandered a lot of money you couldn’t afford to lose? Become abusive? Done something else that has caused a blanket of anger to hide the positive feelings that were once there? (If this is the case, then an important question to ponder as we go along is whether positive feelings or the potential for positive feelings still exist underneath that anger, or are they gone forever?)
  • Besides the question of whether you love your partner, can you say that your partner is someone you truly like?
  • What would have to happen for you to gain or regain respect? An acceptable degree of attraction? Trust? And even for you to be able to like your partner again?
  • What would have to occur in order for your relationship now to become fulfilling to the point where you would no longer consider leaving?
  • If you had to say goodbye now and end it, could you? If so, how would you do it?
  • If you had it to do all over again, would you marry (or become committed to) your partner again?

Use the insights and reflections from these questions to add further to your list and to your awareness and understanding of where your relationship is now. Again, dare to reverse the roles and answer them as you imagine your partner’s perceptions of you.

What are your expectations?

Reflect on your expectations for your relationship. What are they? What is it that you really want from your partner? What could your partner do now that would — from your point of view — save the relationship? Make a comprehensive list, and pay special attention to what you now recognize your unique issues to be.

What are your partner’s expectations?

If your partner were to compile a list such as the one you just did, what would he or she be asking of you? Compose a list of what you think your partner’s responses would be, then take each of these answers individually and ask yourself what you would be willing to give up, give in, or change about yourself in order to accommodate your partner. What are you now willing to do (that you may not have been willing to do before) in order to save your relationship or to make the climate better?

Looking at your expectations

Many believe in a variation of the idea, “If only I had the right relationship, my life would be totally complete.” But then once involved, the expectations become so high that in the end no relationship could possibly meet all of these expectations. Thus it turns into an unfulfilling experience. I’ve seen many relationships fall victim to the expectations put on them. When this happens, it can be quite unfortunate. That’s why it’s important for you to identify and very carefully reflect on what your relationship expectations are. For example, perhaps you tell yourself that your partner should always “be there for you.” Yet, when you look realistically at this request (or demand), you can see how tall an order that expectation can be. Can you always “be there” for your partner? Be clear about what it is that you really want and expect from your partner. What could your partner do right now that would make questioning whether the relationship can be saved obsolete or irrelevant? What would your partner say in answer to these questions?

By asking you to think about how your partner would respond to those same questions, I am pushing you to be empathetic (tuned in to what your partner feels, or your perception of it). Remember: if you’re working on these questions in private, there’s no downside to allowing yourself to reflect on them with total honestly.

And a few final questions

  • What does this relationship mean to you at this point?
  • Is any degree of sexual desire still present?
  • Are you staying around merely out of the fear of “going it alone”? For financial reasons? For the children? For social or religious reasons?
  • Does the thought of giving up on your relationship trigger sadness, or bring a sense of freedom and relief? Do both reactions to splitting up — sadness and relief — come to the surface? Could it be that you’re hanging in there merely because you are worried about what other people will think if you leave?
  • Are you staying because you want to be part of a couple or in a relationship, even if your current partner is no longer the person you really want to be involved with?

These are some of the factors that I urge you to explore regardless of what stage your relationship is at now, how long you’ve been together, or what your level of commitment may be.

This article has been edited and excerpted from Can Your Relationship Be Saved? How to Know Whether to Stay or Go. This book is for you if you’re trying to decide whether to stay or leave a troubled relationship, if you’re looking back at a failed relationship and wondering what went wrong, or if you want to avoid unworkable relationships in the future. Psychologist Michael S. Broder, Ph.D., offers clear, practical action steps to help couples resolve serious issues — whether that means revitalizing a dying relationship, or letting go and building a satisfying new life without your ex-partner.

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