When is the time to stop believing that things will work out between the two of you, and move on?
When couples come to me seeking help for their relationship problems, they are usually biased between the two options. They are unsatisfied and disappointed in their relationships and contemplate leaving, wanting to leave their problems behind. On the other hand, they fear that moving on might bring new challenges: problems with children, finances, and other important things in their life. As a result, they experience a lot of pain and confusion. They expect the therapist to answer their questions and give clear directions.
As a therapist, of course, it’s not my job to decide for them. I can only help them talk the situation through and straighten the illusions they may believe in. My advice goes along these lines:
All long-term relationships have problems.
In all committed relationships, there’s never only one of the partners responsible for the problems. Changing your partner will solve some problems and bring new ones.
As long as both parties are committed to work through their issues and honestly want to solve them, there’s reason for hope.
Both partners need to accept their partner as they are. Expecting them to fundamentally change is not realistic.
Not talking about their problems solves nothing. A partner who tries to save the relationship by not telling how they feel, will become resentful as a result. They may sabotage the solutions by bickering or passive aggressive behaviors.
Each partner must learn to understand the problems they bring to their relationship and work to change them.
If one of them decides to let go, there’s nothing the other can do to stop them. It’s not about promising or blackmailing, or being good or bad. It is what it is.
Did I choose wrongly?
We all seem to be in love with the beautiful fairytale of soulmates or twin flames, and believe that once we’ve found our true love, everything will work out just fine, regardless of the obstacles that come our way. In reality, things sometimes work out this way, and sometimes they don’t. People change, they come into relationships bearing different traumas and other hardships, sometimes accidents or diseases change the course of life, and all these influences are not under our control. Being a good spouse or sacrificing oneself will not be enough. Sometimes things just happen and it’s hard to control or prevent them.
Every relationship is a form of love. Love has many forms, not all of them are “till death two us part.” But all of them are true and meaningful, even if they don’t end happily ever after. When it ends, it’s very painful to think back and remember all the situations we endured in hope that things would work out, and we may feel betrayed to have overstayed our welcome.
What about relationship addiction?
Relationship addiction is a common name for a set of behavioral addictions, where people are addicted to the highs and lows of a relationship to the point where it impacts one's mental and emotional health (See Blogs What's love got to do with love addiction? and Inside the love addict's brain for more).
"Is clinging to one’s spouse addiction, and is leaving them the cure?"
While in therapy, most relationship-addicted clients of mine obsess over whether they should “stay or go,” and cannot decide either way. They wonder whether leaving their partners—as painful as it may be—will allow them to recover from their addiction, like an alcoholic quitting cold turkey. To them, I often say: If only breaking the cycle of relationship addiction were as simple as letting one person go, and your problems with them! Unfortunately, it isn’t. And what if you let your partner go, and the problem remains? What if your obsessive feelings and problematic, addictive behaviors fade, only to reemerge in the next, even more troubled relationship?
Relationship addictions are not actually about the obsession with one person. Rather, they concern the “love maps” and life scripts addicts learned as children, long before they first met their partners. (See The behaviors of relationship addicts). I first try to redirect my clients to these underlying problems, the ones hidden beneath the “relationship problem.” Staying or leaving is neither the problem nor the solution. What’s more, “Nothing major the first year” is a well-known and wise slogan in twelve-step groups, warning recovering addicts not to make premature choices they will later regret. And I couldn’t agree more!
Most often, what relationship addicts need is therapy and a solid plan on how to move forward—not a change of partner. When well into recovery, they may figure out a manageable way to communicate with their partner, thereby keeping the family intact. Or, if it’s what they want, they may find it easier to leave their partner, as they won’t fear abandonment quite as much anymore. In either case, they win.
What about abusive relationships?
There is one exception to this rule, however: if a relationship addict is suffering abuse, I do advise them to leave, even before they have begun to work through their addiction. I have zero tolerance for physical violence, and I never support staying with abusive partners unless they, too, decide to come to treatment and change.
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.