Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Should I stay or should I go? Not only a classic song by The Clash but a common question about relationships which often comes up in therapy. Relationships begin with hope, joy, excitement, and promise. Initial dates are fun and exciting, sometimes electrifying. There’s great anticipation of what’s to come romantically; you wonder if your dinner date will be your future mate or spouse. For many, as a relationship or marriage develops over time, the relationship changes. The sparks may have faded. Life challenges interfere with romance. Obligations and the daily grind may dull the sheen of courtship. Perhaps you are contending with something more serious — constant conflict, volatile arguments, abusive behavior, or betrayals of trust from lies, addictions, or infidelity. Maybe you’re starting to ask the tough question of whether it is worth remaining in the relationship or better to leave. This post will use lyrics from The Clash to enhance thoughts about this challenging topic.
Has the Relationship Dulled?
Of the possible ways a relationship can sour, this scenario has the most promising chance of salvation. Adding members to the family, taking on greater responsibilities at work or at junior’s school, or caring for aging parents may leave little time, energy, or resources for date nights, romance, or weekend getaways. Somehow “life” has gotten in the way of all the fun stuff you two may have enjoyed during those exciting courtship days. You’ve traded responsibility for fun. The solution to this problem can be as simple as reassessing your priorities, schedule, and values. Often in these scenarios, people allow their schedule to get away from them, failing to set boundaries and say no to things that are misaligned with their core values. If relationship satisfaction is a core value, it needs to be a non-negotiable booking in your calendar. This may require creativity and brainstorming to make this happen (e.g., taking turns hosting playdates with your friends’ kids so parents can have date nights), but it is possible. You were doing it during courtship; you can do it again.
Have you grown apart?
Exactly whom I'm supposed to be
Don’t you know which clothes even fit me?
This scenario is a bit more complicated than simply not making time for each other. In this case, you may wonder if your partner even knows who you are anymore, or maybe you don’t recognize the person you’ve married given the passage of time. This too may be about lack of connectedness. Perhaps in not spending as much time together presently as you used to, you have lost track of each other. It is also possible that you both truly have changed, especially in long-term relationships. It would be more surprising, and perhaps concerning, if you didn’t change from the time you were in your twenties until mid-life and beyond. We age. We (hopefully) mature. We are likely dealing with life responsibilities and pressures that have morphed from the time when we were in emerging adulthood (18-29 years old) to mid-life to eyeing or nearing retirement. However, what probably hasn’t changed is our core personality; psychologists know this remains rather constant over the lifespan in most cases. Rather than looking at changes as a problem, perhaps it can be viewed as an asset and opportunity; date your partner again and get to know the person they’ve grown into rather than longing for who they were. Perhaps you’ll love the 2.0 version as much or more than you did the original one.
Are you accepting unacceptable behavior?
It's always tease, tease, tease
You're happy when I'm on my knees
One day it's fine and next it's black
Of these scenarios, this situation is likely most serious. Again, you may be contending with constant conflict, volatile arguments, abusive behavior, or betrayals of trust from lies, addictions, or infidelity. Within the frequent arguing, there may be twisted dynamics. The constant push and pull in the relationship may leave you feeling confused, frustrated, and exhausted. It may be baffling when this pattern develops, especially if it was seemingly absent from the early days of the relationship. Additionally, betrayals of trust from any number of behaviors can have a deeply damaging impact on a relationship and leave you wondering if the relationship could or should be salvaged. Of course, if your partner truly seems to be happy with you in a weaker position, is giving mixed signals that leave you feeling dumbfounded and overwhelmed, or is actively sabotaging the relationship, it may be time to assess if this relationship is truly value added and even healthy for you to remain in.
Signs of mental or emotional abuse (e.g., name calling, put downs, controlling behaviors, manipulation, etc.) or physical or sexual abuse (e.g., pushing, shoving, hitting, sexually assaulting, etc.) indicate a more serious situation that can be very complicated to sort through. Professional assistance may be needed to untangle the situation and know the best way to proceed. This of course could be a whole other topic unto itself. If you are concerned for your personal safety, a resource you may wish to utilize is the Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233).
Why are you accepting unacceptable behavior?
If I go, there will be trouble
And if I stay, it will be double
The Relationship’s History
Sometimes it’s easy to make excuses for bad behavior in a relationship. You have history. You have been through great experiences like vacations, family gatherings, births, and challenges together like career struggles, deaths, and health scares. You want to make a fair and balanced assessment of your relationship and consider all the good as well as the concerns. Of course, every relationship — read that again, EVERY relationship — will have its struggles: issues to work out, communication patterns to address and modify, differences in values to reach agreement upon. Considering leaving a relationship is very challenging because it means walking away from a meaningful chapter in your life, no matter how good or bad that chapter was. Also, this decision is obviously tied into personal emotion. You are not considering leaving a job; you are considering leaving a person you once loved dearly or maybe still do in some ways.
Your Family of Origin History
No doubt your unique life history is influencing your relationship dynamics and your decision-making process. Whatever was modeled for you by your primary caregivers was absorbed by little, baby you like a sponge — this applies to whatever was positively and negatively modeled for you. If you were raised witnessing affectionate physical touch between your caregivers, you may feel very comfortable expressing your love in this way too. If you were raised in an environment where high-conflict arguments were as common as eating breakfast, you may recreate that dynamic and accept it as normal. Did your caregivers split up? You might have beliefs you developed because of this that can range from “It’s okay to leave a relationship if things aren’t working out” to “I never want to experience a break-up or divorce and will hang on no matter the cost” and a range of beliefs in-between. Keep in mind your life history is not your destiny. You can always change learned behaviors. However, step one is realizing what your patterns, dynamics, and beliefs are to begin with — you cannot change what you do not know.
Your own self-worth is likely influencing who you picked for a partner, what behaviors you will and will not put up with, and whether you choose to stay or go. Although many variables are at play in influencing romantic relationships, this is one that seems to have a strong influence on our decision-making, whether conscious or unconscious. From what I’ve experienced, observed, and counselled in my practice, there seems to be a correlation between esteem or self-worth and relationship variables. Those with higher confidence and a secure sense of self are unlikely to settle or put up with problematic behaviors in their partners. If they are mistreated or disrespected, they tend not to deliberate these concerns for very long. They are clear on their boundaries or lines, and if these lines are crossed, they decisively make a decision to step away and move forward. Some may start out with strong levels of self-worth and through manipulation or abuse lose their confidence and esteem; this is very difficult and generally occurs gradually, making it difficult to notice the erosion of boundaries before things are dire. Sometimes getting objective feedback from friends, family, or a psychologist can help interject balanced perspective and cultivate confidence again.
What does a healthy relationship look like?
Overall, a healthy relationship has a foundation of love, support, growth, grace, and forgiveness. The connection should be growing closer after working through struggles and conflicts with the goal of better understanding your partner while your partner also truly wants to understand your point-of-view.
Hopefully you are communicating about day-to-day needs in running your household and coordinating schedules, but this would make you good roommates. Beyond this, a solid relationship likely includes more meaningful conversations. Talking about life goals, hopes, and dreams ensures honesty about where you would like your life and partnership to go in the future. You should both be engaged listeners who demonstrate interest and concern in each other’s concerns and values. A partner is someone you can go to with frustrations, problems you are trying to work out, and life’s great challenges like layoffs, conflicts, and losses. Solid communication includes working through conflicts in a healthy manner. If you raise an emotional concern, your partner should be truly invested in listening to the concern without defensiveness and reactiveness. They want to listen because there is a shared goal of conflict resolution and relationship growth and connectedness. These goals exceed the ego’s need to defend and “be right.” Conflicts are discussed respectfully and without stonewalling, storming off, or anger.
Healthy Love Life
Is there satisfaction in the bedroom? Compatibility in this department is a major aspect of a successful relationship. A healthy love life has to do with being in agreement about the right frequency for you both. Also, sharing they same style of lovemaking is key. If you have the same preferences or respect for differences, you’re likely in good shape. There should be satisfactory arousal and connection. Communication comes into play romantically as well; open communications about preferences, desires, satisfactions, or requests for changes will not only improve sexual satisfaction but can enrich emotional closeness.
Do you feel respected by your partner? Does your partner accept you for all your qualities, good and bad? Do you feel you can relax and not feel judged? Hopefully you are also respecting your partner and showing understanding for their life’s journey and respect for the human they are today. Do you admire their character, how they conduct themselves, how they treat others in their lives, and how they treat you? The ability to show respect may only come from someone who has respect for themselves. Hopefully, you are honoring and respecting yourself too.
Do you accept your partner exactly the way they are — who they are right now? Today? Do you accept their style of dress, body size and shape, personality, sense of humor, social skills, career, money management behaviors, ways of communicating, habits, and love languages (www.5lovelanguages.com)? There may be a few qualities and behaviors you secretly wish were different; it is likely impossible to find someone who 100% matches what you wish for. You have to have some flexibility. The real question is can you love and accept the essence of who they are? Are you proud to be with them? Do your values align sufficiently so that you are moving towards the same life goals?
Managing the Anxiety in the Ambiguity
This indecision's bugging me
If you don't want me, set me free
Should I cool it or should I blow?
Should I stay or should I go now?
The above discussion points are just some of the variables that influence the complicated topic of romantic relationships. There are many more points that make the big decision to stay in or leave a relationship perhaps one of the biggest life decisions you may make. Again, there may be shades of grey when it comes to the level of dissatisfaction or problematic behaviors, and this is to be considered. For some, the decision is more readily made once they feel sure they have done all that they could do to make changes and try to salvage the relationship. The reality is no matter which choice you make, there will be consequences; understand that consequence is not a dirty word but one that simply notes there will be some type of ramifications, positive and negative. I would argue that the ultimate decision comes down to one of self-respect or self-love, particularly in the case of a relationship that has turned negative in the form of deceit, betrayal, or abuse. In the simplest form, the choice may come down to the choice of living in fear (fear of starting anew and therefore staying put) or love (love of self and deciding a relationship reboot or a new beginning is worth the risk).
Headon, T., Jones, M., Simonon, P., & Strummer, J. [Recorded by The Clash.] On Combat Rock. London: England: Ear Studios.