The desire to love and be loved is one of the most fundamental human drivers. Another seems to be the drive to find solutions to problems.
It is no surprise then that when love and relationships become the problem, our brain kicks into overdrive trying to fix what is wrong. There are, of course, relationships where the right choice is to end the relationship but for many of us, the decision will never seem clear cut. We can spend hours going over all the options, the pros and cons of leaving, while never getting any closer to an answer.
We’re hunting for the perfect solution to an imperfect problem.
“Should I stay, or should I go?” Those words are not only the opening line of one of The Clash’s most famous songs, but they’re also ones I’ve heard many clients utter in my office.
Those 7 words can become all-consuming and your relationship begins to swing wildly between the two options. Somehow each time you think you have committed to a decision, you swing back the other way again. By the time you realise what is going on, you have become that ‘on-again, off-again’ couple you both swore you would never become.
Client’s always ask me “How do we get off the rollercoaster”? My answer is: first we need to take stock of the options available.
Russ Harris writes in “ACT with Love” that there are essentially only a few options available to us when our relationship is no longer working.
We can leave.
We can stay and work to change what we need to change.
We can stay and accept what we cannot change.
Or we can do nothing and sit on the fence, which is a decision in itself.
In my experience with clients, people have tried to do some combination of all four before coming to see me. They’ve tried them all, so they know each option comes with pain and feeling that pain is what sends them onto the fence again and again. Pain perpetuates the rollercoaster of trying to avoid pain and we end up stuck between a rock and a hard place.
One former client, Tina*, and her husband had been struggling in their marriage for several years before she came to therapy. Almost every week when Tina came into my office, her relationship had taken another turn.
Every time they took a step closer to separating, something would happen to bring them back together again. The pain of losing each other would be too much and they would retreat to the suffering of their current relationship. Tina and her husband were sitting on the fence.
But we cannot sit on the fence forever.
To avoid the pain we know we will experience once we step off the fence, we create a situation that is equally if not more painful. Eventually, if we do not make a decision one will be made for us because despite our stubborn nature, humans have not yet evolved to sit on fences. The question is, how do we commit to a choice and take the permanent step forward?
First, we need to accept that the process, regardless of the choice we make, will be painful and that there will be no perfect solution.
We know this because we have tried all of the solutions and confirmed there is pain on the other side of them all.
I would love to promise my clients that there is a pain-free and guaranteed way to fix their relationships, but if I did I would be a snake oil seller rather than a therapist.
There are no short-cuts and by trying to find one or save ourselves from feeling pain, we are often prolonging the suffering we are enduring. It is the relationship equivalent of ‘death by a thousand papercuts’.
Second, we need to ask ourselves how committed we are to making the relationship work on a scale of 0 to 10.
At this point, my clients sometimes tell me they are at a 10, but the problem is their partner is at a 2. Sometimes that is the case, but in any relationship there is only one party whose actions you can change. Yours.
When we commit to staying and changing what needs to be changed we are committing to looking at what in our behavior is contributing to the difficulties we are having with our partner.
If we change what is within our control, the relationship will likely improve but it will not improve as much as it might have if both parties committed to making changes. So we must then make another choice, leave knowing we did all we could, or accept the relationship the way it is with the things we cannot change still present.
Third, if we decide to stay and accept what we cannot change we need to fully commit to doing so. Many of my clients come into the therapy room and say “I accept it, but…”
If we are adding a ‘but’ to the end of our sentence, we have not fully accepted the thing we are “but-ing” about.
The difference between deciding to accept what we cannot change, and sitting on the fence is that in the former we let go of all the thoughts that flooded our head as we sat trying to make a choice. We decide to embrace what is here right now and focus on what is within our control rather than trying to find a solution for creating something perfect but unachievable.
We recognize that it is within our power to choose to stay and build a meaningful and value-led life alongside the difficulties of our relationship; That happiness and hardship can co-exist if we make room for both.
I often say to clients the movie “Shrek”, got it right and people are a bit like onions. In a relationship, sometimes we are willing to be flexible with the things that are on the outermost rings of our self-onion if the values most important to us are still being fulfilled. We accept imperfect but workable ways of filling those outer-onion needs.
If you value spending time outdoors but your partner says no every time you want to go for a hike, you can decide you will accept that, if you stay, you will not have a relationship where you go hiking with your partner. You can however have a relationship where you choose to make room for that not quite perfect aspect, and go hiking by yourselves or with a friend instead.
So what does this all mean in practice?
In a nutshell, if we choose to stay then the best course for our relationship is often that we focus on the positive aspects and on the actions that are within our control, and accept what we cannot change.
We say okay to imperfection and we really mean it. No buts!
If we remember Tina, she eventually decided that what felt most in line with her values was committing to making her marriage work. In taking stock of the things she was doing that were impacting her relationship, she recognized that what was within her control was accepting she was trying to change her husband in ways he was not capable of changing. She chose instead to engage in appreciating what they did have right now. When she did that, she suddenly had the mental space and time to begin doing things she had given up years ago because her relationship had become such a big focus. She decided to accept what she could not change, and focus on what she could.
There is no guarantee that Tina or you won’t in the end choose option 1 and leave your relationships. You will know however that before you made that choice you tried everything you were able to do to give the relationship a chance at success.
If that happens and you choose to leave, then make room for the pain that will rise. The failure of a relationship, even one that was difficult, always fills us with a sense of loss. We grieve not only the loss of what we had but all we could have had.
When we commit to action within our relationship that is in line with our values, we allow ourselves to develop and grow. Sometimes we do that together with our partner and sometimes that growth allows us to reach a place where we feel strong enough to make the difficult choice to take a final step off the fence and finally answer that difficult question of “Should I stay, or should I go?” once and for all.
*Client name and all identifying details have been changed.