Many people think that couples go to therapy in order to save their relationship, but this is not always the case. Sometimes I help couples break up. As strange as this might sound, we may need support to end a relationship, because breaking up can be hard!
I also help couples with what I call “conscious closure.” What do I mean by conscious closure? It is based on the idea that how you end something sets the stage for a new beginning. In this case, how you end a relationship creates a certain momentum for your next relationship. If you end a relationship without making time for self-reflection, you are in danger of repeating the same dynamic you had in your old relationship, albeit with someone new. If you’re noticing that you seem to be repeating the same dysfunctional dynamic in your own relationships, maybe it’s time to get curious about whether this might have anything to do with your own contribution.
For example, one of my clients kept attracting unavailable men. She really thought she wanted a long-term, monogamous relationship but she kept ending up with men who didn’t, even when they conveyed the exact opposite in the beginning. She was becoming frustrated and her self-esteem was hitting an all-time low. I gently suggested that perhaps these men reflected a part of her that was also saying “no” to the relationship. It wasn’t until we started to explore the “no” in her that things really turned around. By seriously reflecting on her own contribution to the end of one relationship, she was then able to create a different and more empowered dynamic in her future relationships.
But back to “To stay or to go?” This is a big question! There really are no generalizations I can make about this topic. It is a decision that is unique to each member of a couple. Sometimes it becomes apparent after working with a couple for a while that the best course for both parties is to end the relationship. This decision can be heartbreaking, especially if children are involved or one member of the couple is trying to hang on. Other times, even if everything in you is screaming, “Get out!” the best course might be to stay because there is so much growth potential for you in the relationship.
If you are entertaining the question “To stay or to go?” here are some things you might want to ask yourself:
Do I love this person?
This might seem obvious, but people stay together for many reasons long after the love has gone. You might stay out of convenience. Or maybe the thought of being single is too scary; you fear being alone or you are avoiding feelings of rejection or abandonment, even though staying in the relationship has you feeling lonelier than you ever would on your own. Sometimes couples stay together for the kids’ sake, although you have to wonder if the children really benefit from their parents’ loveless marriage. Sometimes it is pure habit that keeps a couple together, or emotional and financial dependency… The list goes on! If you don’t have a clear answer to this simple question, you might want to consider therapy to get some clarity, because there really is no happy relationship without this basic building block.
Can I grow with this person?
Sometimes people quite simply grow apart. You may realize you have very little in common anymore or very few places where you meet and can enjoy something together. This happened to a long-term couple I worked with who realized, sadly, that all that was holding them together were the kids.
Other times the relationship is pushing you right up against your “growth edge.” What do I mean by this? Your growth edge can take many forms, but basically it is when being in relationship forces you to look at the next step or stage in your personal and/or spiritual growth and development. This can happen when you realize that you need to look at some deeply rooted habits or beliefs if your relationship is to survive. Or when an old wound from your past surfaces in your relationship because it is ready to be healed.
For instance, I had a client who had finally found someone whom she really liked and felt very compatible with after many years of unsatisfactory dating. Her growth edge came up strongly for her at this stage, in the form of fear and the desire to run from the relationship. This made no sense to her until we started to explore her fear. She realized that she held beliefs that relationships were dangerous and had deeper beliefs that she was unlovable. Most of this stemmed from old, relational traumas from her childhood that involved physical, sexual and emotional abuse. These traumas were surfacing because her lover was getting “too close” and old alarm bells were ringing. It proved to be a wonderful, albeit scary, healing opportunity for her to address these old wounds. She was brave enough to stay in the relationship and face her demons. As a result, she grew tremendously and also found herself with the relationship of her dreams!
Is there passion or chemistry?
Passion and chemistry are those mysterious ingredients that are either there or not; you can’t really manufacture them. Sometimes passion is there for a couple in the beginning and then it just seems to evaporate. In this case, I encourage people to become really curious about when it disappeared and what was going on at the time.
Time and time again I see with my couples that when the emotional intimacy and safety in the relationship dies, so does the passion. Sometimes this happens abruptly and sometimes it happens very gradually. For instance, for one of my couples the passion started to dwindle after the birth of their first child. Although this is a common time for there to be a lull in lovemaking, they never recovered their physical intimacy and affection with one another. We had to go back to see what message each had internalized about the other during that time. Unfortunately, it had been so long that there really was very little juice left between them. All their affection had been directed toward their child while the bond between them slowly withered from neglect. They simply didn’t have enough love left for each other to salvage the relationship. It was a hard truth to face. In their case, if they had considered couples counseling ten years earlier they might have had a chance.
In closing, I would have to say that whether to stay or go in a relationship is a complex question that involves some level of self-exploration and the ability to be brutally honest with yourself. However, if I were to attempt to distill the essence of what you might consider in your exploration, you could ask yourself these questions: Who are you in this relationship? What does it bring out in you? Does it support your sense of self or does it detract from it? In other words, do you find yourself becoming someone you are not? Do you feel you are twisting yourself to fit the relationship or into the person you think your partner wants you to be? Does being in the relationship support you in being your biggest and best self?
David Whyte speaks to this eloquently at the end of his poem entitled “Sweet Darkness”:
You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.