Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Although our practice advocates for staying together and working through relationship struggles whenever possible, sometimes it is not in your best interest to stay. The questions below can help you determine what the best course of action may be for you. Unfortunately, there is no definitive formula for deciding if your relationship has enough positive attributes to warrant the difficult process of working on it. However, through the process of honestly answering the questions below you will likely gain some clarity. Feel free to go over your answers with your therapist, 12-step sponsor, or a close and supportive friend.
- Is there physical violence in your relationship? You should not stay in a physically abusive relationship. The psychotherapist Mira Kirshenbaum clarifies this issue, writing, “Abuse that happens more than once means you must leave the relationship. Otherwise, it will happen again and again and it will get worse, and your self-esteem will fall and your sense of being trapped will grow.” I believe that if there is even one episode of physical violence that causes the possibility of injury or death, there is nothing to discuss. You need to leave immediately for the sake of your physical safety. Kirshenbaum further expands on this topic by saying that the “only exception is when the abusive partner is currently, actively, and motivatedly participating in a program designed to treat abusive partners and stays in the program for at least a year,” and that while this is happening the abuse has stopped. Although domestic violence is beyond the scope of this book, it is worth saying that if physical violence occurs, there are resources, including women’s shelters and other spousal abuse resource centers, that can help you create a plan to leave your relationship quickly and safely.
- Were things ever really good in your relationship? This is an important question because it leads to other questions. Were you ever in love? Were you ever genuinely happy together? Kirshenbaum states it simply, “You can often fix what was broken, but you can rarely fix what never worked in the first place.” In other words, a relationship that was never very good is not likely to become good in the future. An analogy for this concept is buying a house. When you go to buy a house, even if the house looks messy and the wallpaper is ugly when you first see it, if it is solid and sturdy underneath all of the dirt and clutter you can clean it up and have a beautiful home. On the other hand, there are houses that may look great on the outside but there is structural damage on the inside due to a poorly laid foundation. They may have water damage or a major termite infestation. You do not want to invest in a home that is truly rotten in its foundation. If you can’t remember a single point in your relationship when you were truly happy together, then it does not have a good foundation and it may be time to leave.
- Do you and your partner have a couple of pleasurable activities that you both enjoy? A relationship where the partners share at least a few common interests is often worth saving. Some examples include: having friends over for dinner, cuddling in bed, doing crossword puzzles together over a couple of cups of coffee, watching movies together, going to the dog park, playing racquetball, and cooking gourmet meals together. This does not mean that you and your partner have to share every interest, but you should have at least a few recreational pursuits that you enjoy doing together.
- Do you actually like each other? Step back from any temporary anger that is occurring in the moment and ask yourself if you truly like your partner and if you believe that your partner likes you. Do you enjoy spending time together, or do you dread that moment when your partner walks through the door? Although no couple likes each other every moment of every day, it is important that you are mostly comfortable and happy to be with your partner the same way that you genuinely enjoy being with a friend. Also, does your partner make you feel like you are liked and cared about?
- Do you trust each other? It is difficult to recover when you are in a relationship that has experienced a breach of trust. However, many relationships do survive even the pain and betrayal of infidelity. But it is almost impossible to recover if you believe that everything out of your partner’s mouth is a lie. When you are in a committed relationship, you often are in a position to trust the other person with your home, your finances, your kids, and your feelings. If you don’t believe that your partner is capable of honesty, it is time to reconsider your investment.
- Do you still want to be touched by your partner? What about sex? Is it still good together? It is important for couples to engage in physical touch, including kissing, hugging, holding hands, and rubbing each other’s shoulders. Sometimes in anger there is a mutual shut down of sexual behaviors. Wanting to touch and be touched by your partner is a sign that there is still a physical and emotional attraction. Desiring physical touch is an important indicator that there is still some chemistry there, and it is worth working to end the shutdown. Enjoying physical intimacy is important in finding your way back to each other.
- Do you share core values and beliefs? Although no two people have the same exact set of values and beliefs, there needs to be some common ground. It is important to share some of the same views regarding religion, politics, finances, and raising kids. Without those commonalities, you are coming from two different playing fields and you may have a difficult time compromising or understanding one another.
- Do you and your partner usually find a way to resolve differences? Conflicts will inevitably occur in your relationship as no two people see things in the exact same way. When this happens, are you able to work through the disagreements in a respectful manner or is one person silently seething with resentments? Does one member “hit below the belt,” saying incredibly cruel insults to the other? Are your arguments growth opportunities where each person learns about and develops empathy for the other one, or is there an invisible scoreboard?
- Do you both generally feel respected? If one member of the couple is constantly silencing the other one and not listening to his/her opinions, the other one will feel disrespected and may shut down and refrain from speaking. This can lead to distance or a power struggle. One member may want to “take charge” at all times and be dismissive or curt with the other. This is not helpful for the relationship. In a healthy relationship, each person should feel listened to and respected.
- Do you have kids? I am not implying that having kids together is the only reason to stay in a relationship, but it is a reason to think long and hard before leaving. After all, your decision to leave impacts not only you but your children. My friend, the esteemed therapist and author Robert Weiss, eloquently says, “Breaking up a family is a significantly more profound decision than splitting up a couple because the lives and futures of several people, some of whom may be too young to fend for themselves, are at stake.”
- Are you both fully invested in fighting to save your relationship? Are you both willing to do whatever it takes to save your relationship, including going to a good couples therapist, writing in a journal, or going to a couples workshop? It is difficult to resurrect your relationship if only one of you is invested in trying to save it.
- Have you cut and run before? Is it your pattern to disappear when a relationship becomes difficult? Is your perfectionism leading you to leave as soon as you face hurt and disappointment? It may be worth it to stick around and work on yourself before you flee for greener pastures.