As a therapist working with couples, one of the most persistent issues I see is fear of change.
However challenging things have become for both partners, and however untenable the relationship in its current form, people have an incredibly strong urge to cling to what they know, because the alternative terrifies them.
The will to hold on sometimes feels even stronger than the will to actually fix the relationship and make both partners happy.
I’m repeatedly astounded by people’s drive to remain connected in the way they always have, as if any form of adaptation will destroy everything that came before and erase all the happy memories.
People will stay together even when there is ongoing anxiety, constant sparking off each other, endless transferences and overreactions, and frequently calling the other out over tones of voice, events from the past and other points of conflict, and when sex has been adversely affected or become non-existent.
In other words, constant stress. And yet when I suggest a gentle reframe, and paint a picture of what the relationship might look like if they pushed the structure around a bit, there is panic. Because for so many of us, change automatically equals loss. Even just the thought of adapting to new conditions can put someone into a grief process.
You could call this sadness ‘pre-mourning.’ And I well know myself that it’s very hard to accept that change might actually make things better – enabling both parties to preserve the connection and eventually re-create happiness.
Fear of failure
It’s the same mindset that calls the ending of a relationship a ‘failure’. By this standard, all relationships that end have by definition automatically failed. (I wonder what kind of ending would not count as a failure – both partners actually dying?)
I have written before about the cultural primacy of a very particular kind of coupling, and the idea that to be a fully actualised person you must have been publicly chosen by another, and this must be seen to be the case in your family and community. To tell others that your coupling is in fact not working the way the world expects it to is a source of shame. You feel that you will be pitied or laughed at, and are left wondering if people said ‘How long do you give this one then?’ when you first got together.
There are more options than you think
The normative view of relationships that they are both binary and linear. If they are not one thing they must be another, and that they must follow a certain direction and ascent or they are not valid, or just weird. If you are in a heterosexual monogamous relationship, for example, you will find little public support for alternative ways of being together, except what creates lurid headlines: ‘We tried swinging and have never looked back!’
In fact, there are many ways that a relationship can be reframed or rebuilt, but these options are rarely spoken about as viable options. Like so much in society, if you aren’t doing it in a very specific way, there is something wrong, something lesser, about your choices. Needless to say, this is rubbish, but can be very hard to get past without support, whether therapeutic or from your community.
Some ways to reframe a relationship that is struggling
In the early days of relationship conflict, you may well have worked on behaviour and communication skills. Here I am talking about further down the line.
(1) Decide to live apart, if you cohabit. (Needless to say, the more financially you are tied together, the more this will affect your decision-making. But the decision to live together in the first place should not be undertaken lightly, and ideally never for purely financial reasons. If you have children, the issues are multiplied.)
(2) See each other less often but perhaps for longer each time, or varying contact.
(3) See each other less often full stop.
(4) Figure out the sex, if it was part of your relationship previously. (If it’s gone, can it be rekindled? Do you want/need it to be? You need to be realistic about the consequences when you both assert your needs around it.)
(5) Have some time apart with a timescale on it. (This one scares people a lot as there is a lot of conventional wisdom that says ‘break=ending’. Sometimes it does – but you can only find out by trying.)
(6) Open up the relationship up to other people. (This one scares people even more, often with good reason, and it should not be undertaken without a lot of negotiation and research. There has to be mutual consent.)
Love – or helpless attachment?
The tie that binds here is a thread of what is called love, but may be more akin to helpless attachment. I cannot say for sure what is love or what is not, but if the pain and fear are outweighing the good times, you may be closer to the other.
What if it’s really broken?
It hurts when it’s broken. So the feeling of acceptance is often welcome. I am divided over whether true acceptance can really be worked on, or whether you can only invite it in, to appear when you are ready.
If you’re experiencing difficulties in a relationship and would like to explore things with a therapist, you can contact me here.