Healthy Connections

Ending destructive life patterns

When Is It Time to Leave a Relationship?

Why people stay in unhealthy relationships and when is it time to go?

There’s currently media frenzy around Anthony Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, deciding to stay together and maintain a public life while wrestling with his acknowledged sexually inappropriate behavior and lies.  But, we really don’t know anything about their relationship, including their values and their dreams before all this began.  If they weren’t public figures, they would be just another hurting couple trying to figure out how to best move forward with their lives.

Many people assume that a spouse would leave after a serious betrayal. However, we have to look more closely to understand the dynamics of lost love. It is so easy to say “I wouldn’t put up with that!” or “I would dump him in a heartbeat!” but you might be surprised with your own reaction if you had to live through it. Shock and denial are often the first responses to something as unthinkable as sexting or cybersex affairs by someone you respected, loved, had a child with and committed your life to. Similar reactions occur when an affair, an addiction, or criminal behavior is discovered.

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When we look at another couple’s struggles, we have a very limited view of their feelings and thoughts at such a time. We assume only the most obvious reasons apply – wanting to stay together for a child’s welfare, because of religious convictions or long-standing family values, or for financial reasons. Sometimes the strongest personal reason for staying is as simple as “I’m not ready to leave”.  In other words, I’m not able to face the facts and the changes ahead just yet.

The truth is that there are no perfect relationships and those who try to have perfection do it at the expense of honesty, true intimacy and authenticity. Perfectionism is another reason people are stuck in bad marriages. The best relationships have many ordinary flaws, but not ones that are damaging to self esteem or hurtful to either party. Healthy relationships do not require that we abandon our values to keep them or that we lie to ourselves about who we are and what we need and want. 

As a marriage counselor, I have learned to be patient with clients who know they are in a dead end relationship and are not able to leave it.  They are frozen in fear. They feel numb and alone. They are ashamed of the fact that they were duped.  They feel guilty for exposing their children to this trauma. They have no plan for what comes next.  To cover all of this confusion, I often hear the words “But I love him”. Sadly, that is not a good reason for staying in an abusive relationship. It just keeps them stuck.

Realistically, I believe there are really only two healthy options that can result in a good life for the injured party and their children. One option is to leave, grieve and move on.  The other option is to stay because there is an abundance of evidence in the behavior and emotions demonstrated by the partner that indicate he/she is serious about change.  Actions and emotions, not verbal promises, show a wounded spouse that it is worth taking a chance, at least for a while. That does not mean they must stay, but if they feel trust based on evidence, not only promises, it may be worth trying.

The evidence would not only be that the “offender” seeks serious professional help and begins a visible program of recovery. Rather, it would be concrete signs of abstinence from the previous behavior along with openness and honesty about anything related to the past behavior and recovery from it.  Trust can be built if there is a willingness to discuss anything and an agreement about what will happen if the “offending behavior” begins again or if there is dishonesty. In most cases, that would be the end of the relationship.

After a serious betrayal, such as inappropriate sexual behavior and the added public humiliation, the decision to stay in the relationship isn’t something that a spouse can do and then never question again. Whether doubt is expressed or kept secret, the issue of trust will be questioned every day for the rest of marriage. The offender must understand and live with that doubt.

Whether the injured party stays or moves on, it is important to seek help for the painful feelings and self doubt that lingers.  This is not something you can just walk away from and forget.  It changes who you are and your expectations of love and life in the future.

In some cases, relationships of reconciliation grow and improve beyond the state they were in before the betrayal if both partners are willing to grow and address their own issues.  Despite their efforts, often, the injured party does not recover from the hurt and resentment and the marriage ends anyway. 

Marriage counseling or divorce counseling is usually about helping two adults to find a way to be a better couple whether they stay together or divorce amicably. When children are involved, it is important that parents are stable and emotionally healthy whether together or apart.  Counseling can help the partners to be able to successfully co-parent their children until they are grown. 

 

Ann Smith is the Executive Director of Breakthrough at Caron. Her updated book, Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding Balance and Self-Acceptance, was released on March 5, 2013. Leave a comment here or connect with her on Facebook

Ann Smith is the author of the books Grandchildren of Alcoholics and Overcoming Perfectionism.

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