Years ago, when I was a fresh-faced junior couple therapist working for a counselling charity, I helped with a research project designed to better understand the motives for people coming to our clinic.
When we collated the data, one question stood head and shoulders above the others: ‘Should we stay together or break up?’
Thirty years ago, couples were even more reluctant to seek help than they are today. But even now, couples come in later rather than sooner when problems hit and the question of whether to separate is still often what brings them to therapy.
It’s also what couples fear most about coming to see a therapist. Search the internet and you’ll read warnings about how counselling will end your marriage and, though of course it’s true that couples do sometimes come to that conclusion, they are — at least in my practice — certainly in the minority..
It can be difficult to acknowledge to yourself that thoughts of leaving are in your mind — the romantic ideal has us believing that being in love precludes such things.
But many people will at some point think about leaving their partner.
However, sharing these thoughts is quite another thing — sharing that much uncertainty with a loved one is a very high-risk strategy as threats of abandonment have a habit of raising the emotional temperature between a couple to boiling point.
In almost all relationships, lovers go through a gradual disillusionment process. Life happens and the honeymoon ends.
Suddenly you’re not living with this ideal fantasy person but with someone with their own point of view, their own moods and their own separate needs. For some relationships, the disappointments are the beginning of the end.
But what makes us cross the line from imagining breaking up to really doing it?
We might feel unhappy; we might know there are many parts of our relationship that are unsatisfactory; we might even, at times, feel despairing about the future. But how do we know if those feelings are something we need to learn to live with or something we should be learning to live without?
Are there deal-breakers that mean you must call it a day? Is a partner who is having an affair or lying about other important things a reason to call time? Should you move on if your partner won’t commit or, for instance, if they don’t see eye to eye with you about having children?
And though your friends or family might be urging you to break it off, should you?
All couples have ups and downs, phases that are demanding and tricky. Every relationship goes through transitions: moving in together, getting married, having babies, losing parents. Even getting a new job or getting a new best friend can cause cracks to appear.
Couples who stay together seem to be able to repair and rebuild when times are tough. Couples who run into trouble are those who seem more brittle, less able to be open with feelings and talk things through.
But when a phase seems not a phase but more a permanent state, the idea of ending often becomes more pressing. How long you wait for things to improve will depend on how much love is in the bank. The more you’re running into an overdraft, the quicker you might decide enough is enough.
Hopefully, long before you’ve got to that point, you’ve talked things through and if that isn’t working, you’ve sought help in other ways. This is when a couple therapist can come in handy.
Deciding to leave a relationship is never easy — for most people it’s scary to lose your home and negotiate a new way to parent.
People worry about finances, loneliness, the disapproval of friends and family, and, if you have them, the condemnation of your kids. For this reason, many people leave one relationship to go to another, using an affair as both a lever and a comfort blanket to deal with all the downsides.
While this might seem like an easy way to cover any sense of loss, it rarely works out like that. Leaving your partner for someone else can be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire and it never makes a break-up easy. If you go, your partner is bound to be upset, but going straight to someone else’s bed can be extra wounding.
Interestingly, though, contemplating losing the relationship can be the very moment we start valuing it. Seeing your partner as a person with agency who might actually decide to leave you can be salutary, just as imagining a life on your own can, in fact, be the trigger for deciding to stay. Getting close to a break-up can be the moment that a couple make a breakthrough, when they begin to value what they’ve got.
Susanna Abse is a psychotherapist who has worked with couples and individuals since 1991. Tell Me The Truth About Love: 13 Tales From The Therapist’s Couch is published by Ebury.
Relate’s top tips for tricky talks
Relationship support charity Relate suggests the following activities to help you come to a decision about the future of a romantic partnership.
- Write down a list of the three things that make you most unhappy. For each, consider: When did this start to be a problem? Was there a time when this didn’t make you unhappy? If so, what has changed? What attempts have you made to improve things? How have you added to this problem?
- Encourage your partner to also answer the questions and use them as a basis for a conversation. Take turns and remember listening is as important as talking. Consider: what could my partner do differently to address this problem? What can I do differently? If your partner is not prepared to talk, let them know that you don’t see a future together without resolving some of your problems.
- Make a decision: list the pros and cons of staying together versus separating. Imagine yourself in five years’ time — what would your ideal situation be? What steps do you need to take to get there? Make an appointment with a counsellor to help you to think through your options.
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