Dear Therapist..."Should I Leave My Relationship?"
I’m four years into a relationship that isn’t working, and hasn’t been for a long while. We first tried to ignore the problems – largely down to our differences – hoping they would go away. We then enthusiastically tried to make it work – went to couple counselling and devoured books and podcasts on relationships.
After all this activity we are frustrated to find ourselves where we started which is wanting more, or different, from each other. There is a lot of love and affection between us but I’ve tried every which way to square this circle and I know she has too. It. Still. Isn’t. Working. We are both exhausted by living in a household of disappointment and resentment.
I feel for your both. Living in disappointment and resentment is no way to live. And sometimes it’s hard to know whether it comes down to unrealistic expectations that need to be softened or a genuine incompatibility that can’t be ignored. We ask ourselves: Am I being overly rigid and inflexible in this relationship, or am I asking for more, or different, from the person than they are genuinely capable of giving? Simply put: Do I need to grow up or get out? I see a lot of both in my work with couples.
Rigidity and inflexibility are incompatible with intimate relationship. They just are. And yet I see a lot of people falling into an ‘assertiveness trap’ – they aren’t just insistent about their core needs and values being honoured, but also every last preference. (Tell-tale sign: Lists have been made, and they are LONG).
Accordingly, difference is not easily tolerated – it is seen as a problem to avoid, rather than a reality we are all challenged to manage. When difference inevitably surfaces, the inclination is to blame their partner; fantasise about someone else better ‘out there’ rather than getting down to the real-world work of accommodating human difference and imperfection.
A side note I’ll mention: Accepting difference becomes especially challenging to manage at stages when intimacy deepens (e.g., contemplating a deeper commitment like exclusivity, moving in together, marriage, children). Understandably, this phase is both lovely but also scary as the stakes become that much higher.
The latter is especially true if we haven’t had particularly positive or healthy models of relationship in our family of origin. We may harbour fears of recreating similar. Or that the person we love won’t really be there for us in the end. We can start to see red flags everywhere. Asking ourselves ‘how am I ever going to be able to make a life with them if they can’t even xyz?’ Differences that once seemed small, even charming or welcome, are now BIG and concerning.
When I work with couples experiencing this fear, there may be mini ‘tests’ organised of each other (often unconsciously) that will ‘prove’ one way or the other if the partner will show up precisely as needed in relationship. If this sounds familiar, the work is about acknowledging and exploring the very understandable fears associated with intimacy.
It sounds like you may have done much of the above already. You mention delving into psycho-education and relationship therapy. And still there is resentment. Resentment occurs when we feel we have been wronged or mistreated. Almost inevitably, it is directed at the other, but often the resentment really should be towards ourselves for staying in a situation that is clearly not right for us yet not taking responsibility for changing course. It is unrealistic to expect someone else’s core values, or their character, to change. It is also unfair to all parties involved.
There are numerous couples I’ve worked with where the key complaint seems to be ‘she keeps on being her’ or ‘he is still him.’ It seems almost laughably unreasonable on the page, but many people remain stuck in the fantasy that the other can and will change even if all evidence is to the contrary. Then being hopelessly disappointed, even resentful, with this outcome.
We need to be able to accept our partners as they are, rather than how we wish they would be. Else resentment builds on both sides and will almost inevitably drive a couple apart. The kindest thing to do in these situations is to amicably call it, free each other. I don’t say this lightly – I fully appreciate how difficult it is. Staying in a relationship that isn’t working is often so much easier than the alternative, at least in the short-term. It is hard to let go of what we have, usher in loss, when we have no idea what may (or may not) come to us in the future. In these instances, we need to muster up the courage to let go of something that no longer serves us, trusting that doing so clears the way for what does. As author of Necessary Losses, Judith Viorst puts it, ‘the road to human development is paved with renunciation.’
If you and your partner decide to end things, please do resource yourselves. Lean into other relationships for support and connection. Engage in individual therapy for space to process all of the emotions associated with grief and loss and also to gain insight on lessons learned from this relationship so that you can apply these to future ones.
And remember: It is usually only in hindsight we can appreciate the growth, the gifts, the new beginnings made possible through loss.