The decision to leave an unhappy relationship can be the biggest challenge one could ever face.
This is why so many couples choose to stay in unhealthy or unfulfilling relationships despite an internal voice urging them in a different direction.
Sometimes things do not seem so unworkable.
Despite the emotional rollercoaster, the highs outweigh the lows. It feels much better to focus on what is going well than dwell on the negative.
But what happens when the lows become more frequent than the highs?
We get confused.
Most of the time, relationships are sources of comfort and stability, even when they are well below less than ideal. Losing them is bad enough; voluntarily abandoning them can be frightening.
Why are we so afraid to end relationships in which we know we are so unhappy and unfulfilled?
Here are 3 reasons why we choose to stay in unhealthy relationships.
Reason 1. The fear of the unknown
“What if I never meet anybody else?”
This makes sense: after all, most of us don’t leave relationships running into the open arms of a healthier, suitable partner.
“What if my life becomes more lonely and miserable than it was?”
It may truly begin to feel like that, as the loss of the unhealthiest of relationships is still often an enormous loss to grieve.
“What if this is the best I could do and I make a big mistake?”
Losing something we’ve put so much effort into (even if it’s hurting us) can come at a great cost, and something we have to truly convince ourselves is worth it.
Reason 2. The fear of the known
“What if my partner has threatened me in some way, perhaps bad-mouthing me to friends, children, and other loved ones or is willing to cut me off financially?”
These may be realistic threats, and there even may be the possibility of physical violence. “I can’t afford to do this.”
There will be financial losses to be suffered, children to be affected and uprooted, and all the other stresses that come with having to move and/or become a single parent, to name a few.
There may be a feeling of failure, a feeling of being judged, a loss of friends and other support networks.
A loss of a relationship, even an unhealthy one, is still a significant loss.
The potential benefits gained by ending an unhealthy relationship often don’t seem high enough to make up for the potential loss suffered.
Reason 3. Inner GPS
How do we know our emotions well enough to make accurate judgments?
Most of us are pretty aware of when we are experiencing positive emotions, but somehow when they turn negative, they become unclear.
Often, we are simply not sure of how we feel.
In order to establish how we register gains and losses, we have to understand where they lie in our own ability to accurately gauge our emotional responses.
It becomes a problem just to try to understand if we’re actually happy in our relationships. Or so we think.
Our authentic inner selves are pretty honest. They don’t have hidden agendas, nor do they lack any perspectives our conscious selves are aware of.
They see situations as they are. And to that end, they can help guide us if we listen to them.
The problem here is that though they may give us good solutions, they don’t give us easy ones.
We may hear where our inner GPS beckons us to go, but those paths are often a lot harder than staying where we are.
They often involve those “known” and the “unknown” fears; delicate and touchy subjects like uprooting children, moving, or dealing with messy financial situations and/or physical violence.
We use all of these and more as reasons to stay in relationships we at least suspect may be bad for us.
But sometimes by the time we’re suspecting they are bad for us, chances are we are only coming to realize what we’ve been trying to tell ourselves.
Even ideal relationships have their share of conflict, difficult decisions, and resentments.
Depending on the partners, healthy relationships can have more arguments than non-healthy ones, issues with partners’ families, friends, and just about anything you can think of.
What is it then that lets healthy relationships flourish?
When two people are in a healthy, functional relationship, they are most often externally happy as well.
They are usually more productive at work, in better health, and are generally flourishing.
This happens because they are given room to grow as individuals while still being supported.
Despite conflicts or issues with their partners, they know they feel good overall because they’re still respected and cared for.
Somehow they have managed to not depend on the other for their own internal happiness, but instead have been able to bring an equal balance of love and joy to share with each other in a healthy way.
No one except you can really know what is best for you within your relationship.
Change comes most often when there is a deep crisis, and it often takes time and experience to know what is right for you.
There are never any true mistakes, just learning experiences.
You may not be ready to consider any decision until you have had time to understand and validate your own needs.
Here are some steps to consider:
1. Tune into your feelings often.
Develop a good feedback system so you can trust your emotions. If you are not sure of them, it can be beneficial to have someone to talk to; a therapist or counselor.
Talking to a professional can help you gain clarity and insight into how you really feel and what you really need.
2. Once you catch a glimpse that your feedback mechanism is functioning properly, pay attention to it.
Notice when your intuition has been correct. Even though we can’t always understand its logic, it’s more accurate than we often give it credit for.
We all have an inner guidance system that lets us know when something feels wrong.
3. If you now have a reliable way to sense your feelings and you can tell when something needs to change, remember that your brain will over exaggerate how hard it will be, or the potential consequences.
Loss aversion is a powerful force that can stop us from acting, even when it’s not in our best interest.
Figuring out whether or not to leave a relationship is not an easy, quick decision. There is never a “right time” to do it and you may likely never feel ready for it.
No one sets out to start a relationship with the intention of ending it, and you may feel that by merely ending a relationship at all, you are admitting that you made a mistake.
No one has experienced your life the way you have and can truly say they would have had the insight to do things differently.
If you can develop trust in your inner guidance system, choices become clearer.
If you find someone to talk to about it, choose a professional who helps you trust that guidance system and who supports you in making your own decisions.
About the author
Licensed Clinical Social Worker Jill Silverman specializes in relationship counseling, divorce, infidelity, depression and anxiety. She incorporates the use of EMDR therapy into her practice to facilitate healing to those whose past traumas continue to impact the quality of their lives.
She has a private practice in the Del Mar/Carmel Valley community of San Diego where she sees couples, adults, adolescents, and families.
She supports people through all various stages of life and helps people navigate through stressful times to create balance, harmony, and fulfillment in their lives and with the people they love.
Visit her at www.counselingandtherapy.com or follow Jill Silverman, LCSW on Twitter https://twitter.com/#!/TherapyServices for articles or to learn more about how to find greater joy in our relationships and happiness in life.