By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
It seems to me in our great grandparents and grandparents’ era, people seemed to stay together no matter what. In today’s fast moving, perfectionistic world, people seem quick to leave no matter what. In my therapy practice, I often help ambivalent clients differentiate between deal-breakers and deal-makers. Should they stay or should they go? And of course, we talk about the grass needing maintenance on the other side of the fence as well.
If your partner is thinking of leaving you, here are some tips to help you navigate this painful chapter.
Know That It’s Not All Your Fault: Despite what your partner may say, the fact that they are thinking of leaving you is not all your fault! I am sure you have some relationship patterns to change — we all do — but the fact that they are considering giving up on the relationship is not (and I repeat not) all about you.
Your partner may have issues with some of the things you do, but a healthy and committed partner tells you about them respectfully, remains open to working on them and decides which issues are essential to change and which ones they can live with and accept.
Do look at your part in the relationship struggles. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It simply means you are a teachable person who is willing to grow and change. Over time you will find out if your partner is willing to grow and change as well.
Stay In the Moment: The natural tendency in a life crisis like this is to fret about the future. But you never know what may happen. I have seen couples make it and thrive after infidelity. I have seen partners who didn’t think they could survive a break up be the ones to make the final decision to leave and end up happier. The bottom line is that you have no idea how this is all going to turn out. Just do what’s right in front of you and when the time comes to make a decision, in that moment, you will know.
Much like reeling in a fishing line, we all need to learn how to reel our ever so creative and active minds back to the present moment. The stories and scenarios we create seem so real, they actually cause us to have feelings about things that haven’t even happened. Catch yourself when you can and reel yourself back to actual — factual — reality.
Don’t Make Any Major Decisions: Don’t even buy a new washer and dryer right now! The only thing you need to do is your basic self-care and necessary responsibilities. Continuously ask yourself, “What do I need to do to take care of myself and my children?” When enough time, tears and tantrums pass, you will be clear about what to do. Making a decision from the place you and your partner are in right now is likely to be reactive, rather than rational.
Unless your partner is abusive and/or an addict (and unwilling to work on it), I recommend that you give this process enough time to make sure you are a making a well thought out decision.
There is nowhere to go that will be magically easy or bring permanent happiness. Unless you are both perfectly clear that the relationship is over, or there is abuse (in which case it should be), this relationship might be worth waiting for. The decision will unfold and become clear over time.
Don’t Be Your Partner’s Therapist: Your partner may be confused and in a lot of pain right now, but you are not the best person for them to sort this out with. You both need safe, objective, loving and forthright people to support each of your very different needs. It’s not good for you to be constantly hearing every detail of your partner’s ambivalence about the relationship and it’s not good for them to be hearing the daily details of your emotional pain.
If it feels productive and important for you to hear some of your partner’s grievances, and you can still maintain your sense of self, then do that. However, if you feel like you are turning into a therapist or a punching bag, it is best for you to set some limits.
Don’t Turn to Addictions for Comfort: Many people want to turn to addictive habits for comfort at a time like this. And while they do provide short-term relief, they will surely lead to long-term grief.
Are you numbing your feelings with drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, shopping, gambling, food, diets, purging, or obsessing on your appearance? Are you excessively exercising, or using your TV or computer until you’re zoned out? Are you preoccupied with another relationship? Even depression can be a way to numb out and avoid painful emotions.
The truth is that it’s hard to feel emotional pain and it’s hard to feel the consequences of addictive habits intended to avoid emotional pain. However, only one will lead you out and through while the other is a dead-end road of anesthetization. Once you find the right kind of support and build a tolerance for feeling difficult emotions, you will see that all feelings eventually pass. You can learn to receive comfort externally from others and internally from yourself.
Don’t Lose Yourself: When a person is at risk of being left, their basic sense of value is extremely threatened. The natural tendency is to wait, like an innocent puppy, to see if its owner is going to come back. What once may have been an equal playing field between partners can turn into a one-way power play, with all the power in the hands of the person considering leaving. Who would want to be left? Who would want to be potentially rejected by someone you love?
But love, in spite of countless poems and country-western songs, is not enough. It takes shared values, commitment, maturity, spirituality, communication and grit (from both partners!) to make a long-term relationship live a long and healthy life.
While it is important to stay open to working on relationship issues if your partner is willing to respectfully discuss them, it is equally essential that you stop putting all your focus on your partners wants, needs and feelings and begin to regain your own sense of power. You were (hopefully) okay before you met your partner, and if the relationship ends, you can be okay again.
Your partner may be unsure about the relationship, but what are you unsure about? What do you want? What are you unwilling to live with? What do you need to be different if the two of you were to stay together?
Pursue What Brings You Joy: In addition to dealing with moment-to-moment self-care during a life crisis, it is essential that you also begin, when you are ready, to use this time as an opportunity to find things that fulfill you. Not only will this help you in the present, but it will create hope for the future. And as a bonus, people who feel joy and do things they feel passionate about are much more attractive to their partners than people who are chronically depressed and overly dependent.
This may mean reestablishing things you used to be passionate about and got away from. It may mean cultivating some new interests. What did you used to love that you gave up when you met your partner? What have you always dreamed of doing but never had the time or courage to do?
Whether it’s a meditation or yoga class, a book club, a hiking or biking group, a new sport you’ve never tried, a craft, music lessons, or reconnecting with an old friend, it is critical that you find, have and/or rekindle the things that bring you joy. When we give up important parts of ourselves for a relationship and the relationship is at risk, our stability is at risk as well. When we are filled up and living a full life that we love, we may still need to grieve and face the unknown, but we will not have forsaken ourselves in the process. You might be feeling abandoned by your partner right now but you do not have to abandon yourself.