Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, MFT 43464
16 Years of Creative Solutions
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Difficult Relationships: Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Our brains are hard-wired to form deep emotional attachments. Oxytocin, also known as the “bonding” chemical, flood the brain during cuddles and closeness and even when looking at pictures or sentimental memories. While we are all familiar with sexual attraction and conquest, it is lesser known that attachment is also a drive within us; a drive to form lasting bonds with other humans; the most-studied being the parent-child bond and the bond of intimate partners. It makes sense that for survival and even to promote parents raising their offspring together that our brains would place an imperative on attaching to others!
The emotions that arise during a breakup are so intense because they are a rupture in that primal attachment. While people don’t like to be rejected at a bar or club when they’re pursuing a sexual conquest, the pain is nowhere near as deep and despairing as in a breakup, where dark emotions may even turn suicidal.
This attachment evolves even when the relationship is unsatisfying or you know from the outset you will not be a good match in some fundamental way. The hardest part during a breakup is to face the intense sensation of loneliness; made more intense by brain chemistry and survival instincts that avoid isolation. The ache that is felt, the longing for the other person, may be you sensing in yourself your capacity to love with no love object to receive it. That capacity to love fiercely is YOU and it is a beautiful, tender, and precious thing not to be confused with the person of your “ex”.
If you haven’t broken ties with former partners, there is a danger that your attachment to them will linger and cause feelings to arise that confuse you. This is exceedingly difficult to do because of the emotion of attachment; yet those very acts help you to break the attachment and allow you to form a new, clean attachment with someone else.
It’s a difficult decision to break up, so even casual affairs that you may initially view as “temporary” can become long-lasting. The longer you are together, the more attachment grows; your bodies acclimate to each other’s smells, you can see the world from your partner's perspective, and you develop routines and inside jokes together. This “intimate knowledge” of a human being never really leaves us; so it may sound old-fashioned to say, but from the perspective of attachment, having many relationships over the decades can really muddle feelings and cause confusion. If children are involved, not only are there attachment bonds between the partners but also between the adults and kids.
Another kind of relationship difficulty that arises is undervaluing maintaining the relationship (“make you feel special”) once becoming parents. When the priorities shift to parenting, the couple relationship is frequently undervalued; limited sexuality, taking one another for granted, or blaming the hardships of parenting on the lack of help from your spouse.
There are other difficult scenarios as well that cause ambivalence; returning to ex-partners to try to give it another try, hanging on to a relationship based on hopes and dreams of its getting better in the future especially when new efforts are being made, or just not being able to face family and friends to divorce, and fearing change.
Finally, I have worked with many people dissatisfied with a long-term relationship because there is a lack of excitement, the romance is over, so to speak, even though their partner is a kind, loyal, and giving person. This is an area where one person feels content and the other person is stagnating and longing for freedom and growth. It feels like the only way to grow and have a psychological rebirth is to leave. But maybe leaving such a good partnership will be an action that you later regret a year from now; and perhaps there is a different way to shift your energy toward pursuing your needs by rocking the boat and breaking agreements. Again, the fierceness you feel about being true to yourself is precious, and important; it is a commitment to YOURSELF as opposed to a need to be single. Are you projecting the limits you feel onto your partner? Is he imposing the limits or do you simply need to renegotiate the terms?
So… to assist you in seeing this issue clearly; Why do you want this relationship to work? What do you have at stake? What needs are you trying to meet by staying together? When you look at this relationship, is it aligned with your personal goals for the future? Does your partner really know what your personal goals are and how deeply you care about them? Are you clear about what you want and are your hopes/ dreams within reach? Sometimes, women feel they have communicated sufficiently about their needs and wants, but are surprised when their partners did not appreciate that those issues were deal-breakers! Are you making an honest effort to tell your partner what you want on a day to day basis? What are your deal-breakers? Have those lines been crossed? Does your partner know it?
It is in a way easier to think about leaving a relationship than to emotionally stay in it and fight for what you want. The latter option requires a lot of honesty, negotiation, and vulnerability. Some tend to “play nice” with their mate, while privately sitting on the fence of staying together or not. Sometimes, you compromise what you want in order to avoid confrontation and rocking the boat; basically to appease the other person but secretly harbor resentments, sadness, and/or longing. It is not an easy skill for many of us to learn to pursue what we want and need in a relationship. The choice may not be personal growth versus staying stuck in the relationship but personal growth within the relationship.
Either way, if you stay or you go, “to thine own self be true”.