When considering whether to stay or go in your marriage or long-term relationship, the agony is often palpable. I don’t believe anyone can answer this question for you, but a coach and/or therapist can help by asking you thoughtful questions to help you arrive at your own decision. When I work with clients, I ask them to consider a few key things.
You can leave for any reason that feels right to you
You might think that in order to leave a situation (a relationship, a job, etc.) your suffering has to be so bad, that there is no other reasonable choice. While I encourage you to exhaust all possibilities to make a relationship work (couples therapy, retreats, talking to religious clergy, living apart, etc.), making the decision to call it quits before things get really ugly is a gift to you, your spouse, your kids or anyone else in your life. Leaving when things are at their absolute worst, often creates a hostile environment for divorce settlement and fighting over custody and other important issues.
Imagine what relief you might feel ending your relationship while you still had some goodwill and respect for your partner. If you are a parent, imagine how much more smooth co-parenting might go. Maybe you struggle to think about your spouse in a positive light. Start by considering your relationship and your partner holistically. List all of their positive traits. Ask yourself these questions:
- What do I like most about my partner?
- Why did I choose them in the beginning?
- How have they grown in our relationship?
- How do they show up well in other areas and relationships in their lives?
- What important things have they taught me?
You make your own happiness
We have been told and often buy into the idea that it is our partner’s job to make us happy and feel loved. With this model, loving someone becomes very transactional. You do what your partner wants so they feel good and then they do what you want in return. It’s often how relationships begin – you feel generous and loving and you do nice things for your partner. Your partner does the same for you. This reciprocity of loving actions helps you “fall in love.” You feel amazing about the kind of partner you are and amazing about the kind of partner they are. Inevitably, this intense focus isn’t sustainable and one or both of you feel disappointed over time.
I find the information in the book, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary Chapman valuable, but it’s important to recognize these as preferences, not absolutes. Do you have a list of things your partner must do for you (or not do) in order to feel loved? Do you withhold love when they do not live up to your standards? This tit-for-tat approach often results in a stalemate – each partner only providing love or loving actions conditioned on the other’s behavior. As you can imagine, loving feelings do not blossom when there is a climate of criticism. Your relationship starts to break down when your partner feels criticized for not loving you the way you want to be loved. Criticism breeds resentment, resentment breeds contempt and this often leads to throwing in the towel. Consider the mental and emotional toll alone for this score-keeping behavior. It’s one of the main reasons marriage experts, John and Julie Gottman labeled criticism as one of the “four horsemen.”
Perhaps you are the one feeling judged or criticized by your partner. Consider this – your partner’s criticisms are often a reflection of their own insecurities, and not of you. What they judge and criticize you for are most likely things they like least about themselves.
What is the harm in believing that someone else’s job is to love us the way we demand to be loved? First, if you believe that you can only feel love when someone else provides it, you are completely dependent on them to feel good.
When you give someone else the responsibility to make you feel a certain way, you rob yourself of your personal power.
What is the alternative? What if you decided it was your job to make yourself happy and your partner’s job to make themselves happy? Take a look again at the list of things you think your partner has to do for you to feel loved. What can you choose to give yourself instead of depending on them for it? You may find that what you crave most is actually more satisfying when you give it to yourself.
Additionally, what if you choose to love your partner just because you wanted to? Might you feel less judged and less judgemental of them? Might you see your partner more clearly – as a human being with flaws and natural defenses quite like your own?
In the end, you may decide that leaving is best, and that’s totally okay. But loving yourself first and providing your own happiness will only serve you well in future relationships.
There may or may not be someone else out there that’s a better fit
If you’ve changed or grown quite a bit since you first met your partner, and you believe they haven’t grown or changed in the same way, you may no longer be compatible in many key ways. In considering whether to stay or go, it is important to examine the nature of what has changed. A few good questions to ask yourself are, “do I still fundamentally respect my partner and do we still share the same core values?” Another good question is “would I still choose this person now if I just met them?”
It is easily to slip into the fantasy that there is a much better partner out there and that a new person will have the good qualities of your current partner, but none of the bad. This “grass is greener” mentality can lead to a very disappointing outcome. All people come with their own flaws, emotional hurts, and defenses.
On the contrary, you might feel that if you leave your current partner who may be a very bad fit for you, that you will have “wasted time.” I encourage you to consider that no time or experience is a “waste” but just a set of circumstances that led you to who and where you are now.
You can stand or like being alone at least in the short-term
There’s one common denominator in every relationship you are in – you! If you don’t like yourself much, having a different partner is unlikely to change that. Maybe your worst fear is “being alone.” Are you staying in your relationship out of fear of facing yourself? Maybe you feel you’ve “lost yourself” in your relationship. Whether you are in a relationship or not, you can always choose to get to know yourself better. I encourage clients to read books, listen to podcasts, talk to me and/or a therapist to learn about themselves.
Falling in love with your own company is the best gift you can possibly give yourself.
Imagine really liking yourself and knowing your preferences. Removing the fear of “being alone” gives you a much better perspective about yourself, your partner and your relationship. Being alone for now also doesn’t mean being alone “forever.” Your romantic relationship should also not be fulfilling all of your social needs. A balanced social life includes relationships with family and friends. If you find that you are not in balance, consider deepening existing relationships or creating new ones. If you leave your current partner, there may be more space in your life that you will want to fill – but consider this an opportunity instead of a burden. What might you learn? Who might you become?
If you are considering leaving your partner and want a thinking partner, I would love to work with you. Together we can explore your current situation, where your thoughts might be getting you stuck, and how you can move forward with intention.