Furthermore, I want them to be very clear regarding all their options and all the consequences of each of their choices. No matter how difficult the decision, my goal for them is to not come back in several years with regret regarding the choice they made.
It is hard, if not impossible, to get this clarity with family and friends. No matter how well meaning, most of the people in your life have somewhat of an agenda. Moreover, there are complexities they don’t understand.
One of the first steps to take when attempting to decide whether to end a relationship is to differentiate between whether the relationship is dissatisfying or, rather, abusive in some way. Now this may seem easy to distinguish on the surface, but some things like long-term emotional neglect can be silent or hidden forms of abuse.
You need context to distinguish between the two. Having a spouse who shuts down in conflict due to how they adapted and survived their childhood is not the same as someone who is intentionally being punitive and passive aggressive with their behavior. I have seen an increasing number of individuals labeled as abusive when it is more a case of a lack of emotional and relational skills.
Additionally, when it comes to abusive behavior, you need a reference point. I have worked with clients who grew up in an abusive home and are currently being treated abusively but don’t realize it because it is what they have always known. In such cases, I have to educate my client about what constitutes abuse.
Even in these cases, I do not tell my client, “You need to leave.” I explore with them why they are allowing themselves to be treated in an abusive manner. You may feel I should be more direct. However, what I have discovered is there are emotional blocks that are impeding the person from taking effective action.
In all of these situations, my client has heard this repeatedly from others to no effect. They then begin to withdraw from social support to avoid feeling shame, which further isolates and makes it harder to leave.
Another factor in distinguishing between relationship distress and abuse is related to narcissism. Now this label gets thrown around in pop culture all over the place. It has gotten to the point where if you have a moment of self-centeredness, you are a raging narcissist.
Here’s a news flash – we are all a bit narcissistic. Everyone has times when they are a bit selfish. But this does not a narcissist make. Someone who has a high degree of narcissism, is consistently shaming, hurtful, and has almost no capacity to allow the other person to have their own experience, i.e. their own thoughts, feelings, and perspective. They lack empathy and are regularly punitive to their spouse or children. In these individuals, there is no doubt about their intent. They destroy others emotionally.
One of the primary hooks to getting stuck in a relationship with someone who is narcissistic is the way they cause you to doubt your reality when you discuss an issue with them. Again, this is with intent. That is a big marker for when someone has a high level of narcissistic traits. Here is what happens.
You approach your partner with a need or complaint, such as you don’t feel important in the relationship. They then start accusing you of making them feel unimportant. They completely skip over your request or feelings and begin attacking you. You become disoriented and start to doubt yourself and give into them in some form. Later, after you are more grounded, you become frustrated with yourself for becoming confused and giving way.
This has nothing to do with your intelligence or strength as a person. What happens is the interaction activates shame and unprocessed implicit memories associated with shame, which then begin dissociating you. This is a neurological process where your brain releases internal opioids to split off the dysregulated energy to help you keep functioning. Typically, this begins in childhood when a parent was either neglectful, abusive, or inept at helping you regulate feelings of shame and sadness.
You then had to dissociate from these emotions. Now when your partner begins to trigger shame it activates these historical memories and causes you to dissociate, leaving you confused and anxious. I have to once again emphasize this can occur in non-abusive relationships as well. You need an objective party, such as a therapist, to help you discriminate whether this is a dynamic you and your partner are caught in or if it is abusive.
If you come to the realization your relationship is abusive, you need to obtain support and guidance for how you’re going to navigate your situation. Don’t worry that leaving may be too scary for you. You can start where you are by addressing your biggest fears related to removing yourself. You also have to identify any emotional blocks that could get in your way and eradicate them. This is where I would recommend getting professional help from someone like myself because this can be a very complex process.
Even though practical matters, such as finances and childcare, are legitimate. I always find the real issue stopping someone from taking action is emotional. I also know we are all shades of gray; everyone has their good and bad sides. If someone is abusive or neglectful all the time, it makes the decision a lot easier.
As human being we are suckers for partial reinforcement. However, we have to relate to the person as they are in their totality, not who they could be or occasionally are. This is a form of denial referred to as Denial Through Fantasy. I have seen this defense keep people in relationships for years and decades.
Being in the relationship is painful, and leaving it is painful. You become stuck between two pain points. One of the ways you may try to escape pain is by hoping the person will change because if they would just change, or be who they are occasionally more consistently, you could avoid all this pain. But this is not the reality of who they are. Moreover, attempting to escape pain by being avoidant will always cause you more pain in the long run.
Maybe, your relationship is not abusive but is dissatisfying in a number of ways. Even though leaving an abusive relationship is extremely hard, deciding to end one in which certain needs are consistently not met brings its own set of complications.
Again, a relationship is always a mix of good and bad. Identifying the tipping point is not always so easy. The place I always start is help the person get connected to what it feels like emotionally to be in the relationship. Emotions are the most vital source of information about what is going on around us. The challenge for most people is they are operating out of so many emotional defenses and lack accurate information about their situation.
When a partner is unresponsive, what do you do with your unmet emotional needs? What usually happens is you find ways to numb these feelings or focus them elsewhere, either in healthy or unhealthy ways. The result is you have lost touch with what it actually feels like to be in the relationship.
Think of emotions like a temperature gauge. They let you know if the emptiness or discontent you feel in your relationship is a 2 on a scale of 10 or an 8 or 9. You are going to make very different decisions if you are an 8 versus a 2. Getting reconnected to your true emotional experience is hard because you may not know what actions to take. “Why would I want to feel those painful emotions,” you may ask.
Here’s a reason why. Remember those two pain points I was referring to earlier, and how they keep you stuck? Well, when one of those becomes significantly bigger than the other one, you will likely move in the opposite direction. There is often the fear of aloneness or grief related to ending the relationship that stops you in your tracks. However, when you get fully connected to how bad it feels to be neglected or treated in negative ways consistently, you will likely blow through those other fears.
There have been numerous times I have asked clients, “What’s the fear related to feeling these emotions,” and they often state, “I’m afraid I’ll leave if I let myself feel what I’m really feeling.” Exposing yourself to this fear allows some of your deeper fears to become clear. They can then be resolved with support.
Relationships are immensely complex. If you are struggling to decide whether to remain or go, get support and guidance to help you resolve these deeper issues. Every situation is unique. Don’t allow yourself to take advice from anyone that is cliched or overly opinionated. Seek help from someone who is well-versed in the multifaceted issues associated with relationships.
I have intentionally not addressed issues of faith in this article, which is a major factor for many individuals. I have done so because I would like to speak directly to this in another article due to the magnitude of the topic.
My final word of advice is to start where you can even if you do not know what to do or believe you are incapable of taking the necessary action to end the relationship. Just struggling with the issue instead of avoiding it is progress. Stay with it! Get the support you need, and don’t avoid addressing it. You will be glad you did in the long-run.