People often seek psychotherapy because they’re stuck in a relationship they claim they’d like to escape. They may want out because they’re basically unhappy, feeling abused, or because they’re getting little or no effort from their partners to improve it. While it’s important to explore the true reason(s) behind a desire to end a relationship—either to help salvage it, to empower people move on with their lives, or to prevent a replication—some people aren’t interested in this process, yet are too stuck to make a change. The result is often a prolonged misery. There are those people who have no idea they’re stuck, but these people are not my focus. I’m talking about those that know they’re stuck, want out for better or worse, but can’t seem to extricate themselves.
The specific reasons people give for remaining in such an unpleasant state of suspended animation tend to vary. One woman told me that she flirted with the idea of leaving her financially irresponsible husband—who refused treatment—but decided that that the financial burden would’ve been too great, particularly at her age. Because she was able to make a conscious decision to stay in the marriage, most of her anger dissipated, but she remained in a constant state of debt.
A man sought treatment with me because he was too paralyzed to free himself from who he referred to as his “jealous and controlling wife.” He claimed that he couldn’t leave his marriage because he felt sorry for his wife. “She has no place to go,” he said. His wife rejected therapy.
A woman I saw endured her husband’s chronic philandering. She talked about ending her marriage but decided that divorce was an unacceptable solution. “Nobody in my family divorces,” she said, “and I’m not interested in being a pioneer.” She re-experienced humiliation and risked disease. Meanwhile, her husband claimed that he wasn’t sure that he could ever be faithful to her. What he said he was sure of is that he didn’t want a divorce.
Several male clients confessed that they had no intention of working on their marriages, but rejected divorce because they didn’t want to accept the burden of alimony. One woman admitted that she didn’t love her husband, but she did love her house. “You don’t understand,” she cried,” I grew up very poor and it would kill me to move out of this wonderful house and neighborhood.”
The impact of a separation on the children always seems to be a factor…as it should be. And understandably, religious values sometimes play a part. When I asked a woman who was being physically abused by her husband if she had ever considered leaving him, she replied: “Well, he’s not always that bad.”
People who are stuck have their defenses, and in most cases, they’re extremely difficult to penetrate. Why? Defenses are employed to block what you may perceive as an uncomfortable—sometimes awful—thing from happening. That is, you may view any change as worse than what you’re experiencing in real time. While the reasons offered by my clients were certainly legitimate, here’s a list of some of the underlying or less conscious reasons for being stuck:
1. You weren’t encouraged to make up your own mind in your family of origin: Perhaps you had at least one dominant, controlling parent who insisted on making decisions for you, or ridiculed you when you made them. In the present, you might perceive it as safer to hand the responsibility of decision-making to someone else. You may also lack the confidence to express your point of view.
2. At least one of your parents may have demonstrated an inability to escape a miserable situation: As a consequence, you may actually feel somewhat comfortable when stuck. I refer to this as role modeling your parent’s stuckness.
3. You’re unconsciously afraid to live a better life than your parents: If you felt sorry for them then you may also feel too guilty to live well.
4. You hate quitting: If you were given the message that quitting is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances, than it might be harder for you to “fold your cards” even if it’s the smart thing to do. On the other hand, this early training might have better prepared you to whether tough times.
5. You were raised by perfectionists: As we age, the choices we are called on to make are often accompanied by more serious consequences. If your parents were perfectionists, you may experience even more trouble taking a risk, particularly if your choices aren’t black or white. You may also be more hypersensitive to perceived failures.
6. You were raised to be entitled: If you were catered to, or few limits were set by your parents, perhaps you’ve never come to accept the fact that “you can’t have it all”: In the present, you may “want what you want,” and will doggedly stick with anything until you get it.
7. You were raised to be loyal or obligated: If a strong sense of responsibility was instilled in you, it may be more difficult for you to leave someone, even if he/she is clearly bad for you.
8. You don’t want to let a fantasy die: Protecting an unconscious fantasy can be an indirect way of protecting yourself from dealing with something uncomfortable in your family of origin. For example, if you face the fact that your partner will never change, perhaps you’ll have to accept that a parent who exhibits similar behavior won’t either.
I’ve already touched on this, but in some cases (except under dangerous conditions) being stuck can be a good thing. If a couple will commit to some treatment, the clinician will have time to help save a relationship. But if it’s clear that neither party will move, the relationship will oftentimes lumber on.
Couples should make a sincere attempt to alleviate their relationship problems. But if this proves impossible, then a tough decision is merited. Wallowing in misery usually isn’t good for anybody. I’ve seen too many good people waste their most productive years waiting for a miracle.