One of the most difficult decisions we face is the moment at which we have to confront whether to stay or leave an intimate relationship that’s no longer working. The decision may be complicated by real-world factors such as finances, shared housing, and children but it’s relatively rare that we can approach the idea of leaving (and, if we are married, divorcing) without feeling unsure at some level.
The forces that make us hesitate
Psychologically speaking, humans are a conservative lot and we’re much more comfortable staying put, even if it makes unhappy, than sailing forth into an unknown future. Then, too, there’s the habit of mind called the sunk cost fallacy which has us focus on the investment we’ve already made—it could be time, effort, or money— which we’d lose if we abandoned ship. Of course, it’s called a fallacy for a reason because staying longer isn’t going to retrieve the years you’ve already invested; those years are gone in any case.
Fear also keeps us stuck and on the merry-go-round too which isn’t surprising since there’s no certainty ahead. If we have children, how will we manage? Will we meet someone new or is this a decision to become permanently single? Will the next relationship be any better? Could it possibly be worse? Many people fall into the habit of thinking about the frying pan and the fire.
And, finally, there’s hopefulness—that somehow the relationship can be turned around. We’re apt to bring to mind stories we’ve heard of couples who brought their relationship back from the brink and found ways of being happy again. We may embark on couple’s therapy, thinking that it will help. (A reality check was offered by my own couple’s therapist years ago who pointed out that people end up consulting with one after things have reached a boiling point; Susan’s observation was that, most of the time, the good parts of the relationship had long since been swept under.)
The signs you should really pay attention to
These observations are based on Dr. John Gottsman’s groundbreaking and authoritative work (and his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail), research, interviews, and personal experience.
As you read, do keep in mind the behaviors Gottman calls the “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse:” criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
- Your discussions always turn into arguments
Disagreement on issues large and small are part of every relationship and, as Gottman and others have pointed out, it’s not whether you disagree but how you resolve those disagreements and it’s not whether you fight but how you fight. Relationships can get to a place where they’re so parched of empathy and real connection that, like parts of California, just about any spark will set off a wildfire. The most pernicious pattern of behavior is what experts call Demand/Withdraw or DM/W, and the withdrawal is what Gottman rightly calls stonewalling.
What makes this pattern so toxic is that escalation is built into it, even if it begins reasonably. As one partner makes a demand, the other party deliberately withdraws, refusing to answer; again, the issue at hand could be just about anything. Research by Paul Schrodt and others revealed that usually the female is in the demand position and the male in the withdraw. Of course, confronted by a refusal to answer—and a stony face, jaw muscles working, arms folded across his chest—the woman becomes more and more frustrated and, eventually, angry. It’s at that point that the person in the withdraw position is likely to say that the real issue is the woman’s anger. Bingo! Everyone is stuck. If the woman then apologizes to him, hoping to end the conflict, the pattern gets set in stone. (If this is you, the chances are good that you resort to pleasing and placating as a result of your childhood experiences. For more, please see my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.)
- Abusive tactics have become the norm
Have your arguments degraded into name-calling? Is your partner telling you that he/she never said that (that’s called gaslighting)? Is your partner blame-shifting—telling you that he would have told you the truth if you’d asked the right question or saying that you always bring up issues when it’s clear he’s tired and upset and so that it’s your fault? Does he or she threaten you with leaving or tell you to “just leave if you’re that unhappy?” These are all forms of verbal abuse.
- Your thinking about the relationship has shifted
You’re finding it harder and harder to come up with reasons why you are still together and, even worse, your partner’s foibles—her clothes piled high on a chair, his habit of leaving dishes in the sink instead of washing them—have become major irritants. You’ve shifted from complaining about a behavior to personal criticism, beginning each sentence with “You always” or “You never.” What’s happening here is that you’ve invited criticism,the first of Gottman’s Four Horsemen, in and asked him to stay awhile.
- You resort to silence or avoid your partner to keep the peace
You have always avoided confrontation and since you’re still on the fence about what to do, you wrongly believe that you are doing something positive by not bringing things to a head. But what you fail to realize that you’re disempowering yourself and ducking for cover. Again, the chances are good that this is an old behavior, learned in childhood, in a household where expressing yourself was emotionally dangerous. How this works is fully explained in Daughter Detox. This is especially pernicious if you have children and you are modeling behavior
- You’ve stopped turning to your partner when you’re upset or making a decision
Anecdotally at least, this usually isn’t a conscious decision but one that happens subtly and gradually as your trust in him or her erodes and you basically stop thinking of “we.” One woman learned that her husband was thinking of taking a new job out-of-state when her neighbor told her; another reader wrote to tell me that he learned that his wife switched jobs because the Human resources department of the new company called the house phone rather than her cell. Yes, you are doing it because you have one foot out the door but to leave, you will need both feet.
If some or any of these behaviors have become the norm, you need to pay attention. Please seek professional counsel if you continue to flounder.
Photograph by Priscilla Du Preez. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994.
Schrodt, Paul, Paul L. Witt, and Jenna R. Shimkowski, “A Meta-Analytical Review of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern of Interaction and its Association with Individual, Relational, and Communicative Outcomes, Communication Monographs, 81,1 (April 2014), 27-58.