Relationships, especially the long term kind, can be one of the hardest things people do in life. Unless you’re the lucky one who grew up in a healthy, loving family and automatically KNOW how to be in relationship, you will struggle. It’s almost a given. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the majority of us, a good relationship is not something that happens easily and effortlessly.
It’s not uncommon for people in long-term relationships to reach the breaking point and ask, “What do I do? Do I stay and try to save the relationship, or should I go?” There are countless Internet articles about this complicated subject and many books that deal with this question. I thought I’d share with you my perspective because it might be different from what many other experts say.
Let me start by saying that some relationships should probably be dissolved. These are the deal-breakers, and they include:
- Any relationship that is extremely toxic;
- A relationship with domestic violence (kind of no brainer, actually), severe abuse (read here to determine if you are in abusive relationship);
- A relationship with somebody who is addicted to substances, or unhealthy behaviors (gambling, sex) and has no desire to change that;
- Relationship with somebody who has severe mental illness;
- Relationship with somebody who blames you for every problem and who is not willing to look at their own role.
But, even in these extreme cases people sometimes make it work. So there are never black and white answers for any given situation.
However, making a decision is even more complicated when there are no obvious and glaring deal-breakers. Usually, people decide to divorce when it’s just feels too painful to stay. In my opinion, it’s often a mistake. Yes, pain usually signals us that something is wrong, but it might also be an indicator that something is “wrong” with ourselves and needs healing.
I believe that a relationship can be an incredible vehicle for change and healing. Very few things in life trigger and hurt us as powerfully and painfully as our most intimate relationships. “But it doesn’t make any sense,” you might be thinking, or “Hey, we’re supposed to love each other!”
What about this “loving each other” business?
Yes, we’re supposed to love each other. But, what do we know about love? Where did we learn about it? If you’re thinking about your family of origin right now, you’re correct. What we saw in our home growing up becomes the blueprint for all our relationships later in life. Whatever we didn’t get from our parents (love, appreciation and acceptance) we ask for from our partners – usually seeking it in quite dysfunctional ways.
For example, instead of directly asking our partners to spend more time with us, we (especially women) nag, complain or make scenes. Then we fight, we yell, we withdraw and we sulk when what we really want is a connection.
Most of us come into a relationship with something that I call “basic wounding.” It might be an intense fear of abandonment, loneliness or rejection. It might be the fear of “not being good enough,” or of “being bad” (shame), and not deserving of love. This is what gets triggered in a relationship: our basic wounds. These wounds filter our perception and distort in our minds the actions of our partners. We unconsciously interpret those actions based on our childhood experiences and feel hurt, become defensive and either withdraw or attack our partner. This, in turn, triggers their own wounds and – here we go again – a fight often follows. You can read more about fights here.
So, what does it have to do with my decision to leave or stay?
Everything! You see, our basic wounding is what WE bring into any relationship. If we decide to split and then find that “perfect-somebody-else,” we still bring all our stuff with us. You will most probably recreate the same dynamics in the new relationship – unless you do a lot of soul-searching and healing.
So, the most sane and effective (in the long run) approach is to STAY and take care of our own stuff first. When we concentrate all our attention on what needs to be changed and healed within us, we start growing and changing. And when we start growing and changing, three things may happen:
- Our partners will start changing and growing with us. The relationship will change as a result.
- We may realize that even though we are now finally happy and content, our partner is not somebody who we want to share the rest of our lives with. We are ready to move on – in peace, not in pain.
- Even though our partner doesn’t change, we’re okay with that and relationship is essentially good.
In any case, no matter what our partner does, we will be better off! When we heal our own wounds and conclude any unfinished business with our parents (we’ve learned to feel good about ourselves and give ourselves the love and unconditional acceptance that we’ve been seeking in outside world) we will completely change the quality of our lives. We’ll be happy and fulfilled, and our relationship will reflect that.
But you didn’t tell us when to call it quits!
I hope that by the reading what I wrote so far, you’ve already figured out that there is no easy answer to this question. But, if you do your own work and healing, this answer will come to you more or less automatically. You’ll know in your gut what to do. And this decision will not be based on any desire to escape pain or punish your partner, but rather on a deeper understanding of what you need in life to live “happily ever after.