Coming to the end of the same relationship—over and over again
In our society, young couples are settling down at a much later age than they did fifty years ago. When I married my wife, she was twenty years old; and no one suggested that she was too young. Many of her friends were engaged or married, or would be married, in the next few years. I think women of a similar educational background, living now in the same area of the country that we did, would not marry on average until they were in their late twenties or even later. Marrying at the age of twenty would seem foolish, even reckless. Many women are marrying so late that they have to be concerned about not having enough time to have as many children as they would like. Men, also, are marrying at a correspondingly older age.
There are a number of ramifications to this demographic shift, among them is the fact that inevitably more men and women will have developed a greater number of close, intimate relationships which then break apart. These abbreviated relationships occur repeatedly before one of them ends finally in marriage. But managing a broken relationship now is no easier than it was in the past. Very short relationships come to an end without much distress, but the longer they go on, it seems the more difficult the eventual break-up; and these break ups seem to go on, off and on, for a longer period of time.
Patients come to psychotherapy frequently in the wake of a crisis; and that crisis is often the threat of a romantic relationship coming apart. Usually that relationship has gone on for a considerable period of time. A considerable attachment has formed between the two people. They both have spoken of loving each other; but, after a time, things have started to go wrong. And this process has continued long enough for the patient to have a number of serious doubts about the other person. Those concerns take shape as a list of the shortcomings of the other person— sometimes an actual physical list that the patient holds shakily in hand. There is usually a shorter list, committed to memory, of that person’s good points.
The patient has concluded that the person he/she is dating is not suitable, if not actually awful. He/she has spoken to family and friends about this matter, and they are universally of the opinion that he/she would be much better off if the relationship were broken off. They often express themselves in unequivocal term: “You have to be crazy to see this bum/bitch any longer!”
When I hear of the particular failings recorded on this list, I wonder how such a relationship could have lasted this long. Sometimes the deficiencies are minor, but persistent:
“…is always late, and never calls.”
“… makes noises when eating.”
“… is too influenced by parents—or friends.”
“…is too messy, (or obsessively tidy.)”
“… is a spendthrift, (or too stingy.)”
“…watches T.V. all the time.”
“… blames me when anything goes wrong.”
“… has to be reminded all the time to do chores.”
“… objects to my clothing, or the way I wear my hair.”
“…is always too tired.” And any of a hundred or so other such complaints.
But the patient’s list is more likely to include some more serious faults:
“… not mindful of my sexual wishes, or not interested in sex at all.”
“… has a violent temper.”
“… is rude or vulgar.”
“… accuses me if being unfaithful and spies on me.”
“… drinks too much.”
“… lies to cover up things.”
“… is unfaithful.”
Or has a drug problem, or a gambling problem, or disappears without warning for weeks at a time.
Still, most of the complaints that bring someone to the point of breaking up with a long-term partner center on the other person’s lack of caring. “He says he loves me, but he:
“… makes no attempt to see me during the week.”
“… cancels appointments with me at the last minute to see one of his friends.”
“… goes on trips with his family without inviting me.”
“… has no interest in my work or my friends.”
“… is not as affectionate as he used to be.”
“… never sleeps over when we have sex.”
“… doesn’t remember that I had a doctor’s appointment.”
“… doesn’t bother to see me on my birthday.”
Sometimes the failings on the list are awful. “She doesn’t seem to want to break up but:
“… she stays out late with her friends and gets drunk every night.”
“… she sees her old boyfriend without telling me.”
“… she had an abortion without telling me.”
“… she spit at me.”
“… she accused me of bugging the apartment.”
“… she tells me she only stays with me for the sake of the dog.”
“… she hit me while I was sleeping.”
After this particular patient presented me with this particular catalogue of his girlfriend’s deficiencies, he looked at me expectantly for my advice. Of course, that was my cue to say what all his friends had been telling him—that he ought not to see this woman anymore-- although I am not expected to tell him, as they did, that he was an “idiot” and a “jerk” for having stayed with her so long. But I did not offer this advice. I never give that particular bit of advice. For two reasons:
Such a patient will stay in that relationship for a period of time despite knowing that it should come to an end—because breaking up is hard to do. Reality takes a back seat to wishes and desires. There are powerful forces holding long-standing couples together.
Reasons for staying together:
Love Someone hanging on to an unsatisfactory relationship often gives love as the reason. No one has ever explained and measured the exact dimensions of love. It is fundamental to the human condition and is hard to describe in words, just as hunger or thirst is hard to describe. Individuals on the verge of walking away from someone they love are, literally, hurting. The thoughts that come to them are of the good times they had with that person in the past. Perhaps, they can come again. Perhaps, the plans they had for the future could still be realized, somehow. Perhaps, the other person can change. His/her deficiencies are explained away:
“I know he hit me, but it was only once; and I provoked him.”
“She’s been under a lot of stress, moving away from her family.”
“She used to be interested in sex. I don’t know what happened, but maybe it’s because of her job.”
“He’s under a lot of pressure from his family to spend more time with them.”
“I know he/she really loves me.”
I point out that judging whether someone loves you should be based on how that person behaves, and not on what he/she says. But still, there are real reasons to believe that this other person loves, or did love in the past. But in the end, love is not enough.
The second major reason someone stays in a relationship too long is the prospect of once again being alone, having to date all over again, having to smile without feeling like smiling, having to accommodate oneself to one more person. And having to do that over and over again. It seems easier to stay with someone you know, rather than be alone. And there is the thought that there is really no one out there at all.
Of course, the alternative is not being alone, except temporarily. The alternatives are whether someone will be happier staying with this particular person with all his/her failings, or with the person who will inevitably come along sometime in the future. But even if my patient has gone through a number of such separations in the past and has survived them well enough, this time it seems to be too painful. The future seems too uncertain.
So. This is what usually happens:
An exasperated person gets into a fight with his/her partner, and leaves at last. How long it has taken to get to that point depends on how long the relationship has lasted until then. Someone married for five years will put up with unsatisfactory behavior longer than someone who has dated for five months. But, even after finally leaving, doubts appear. Without the other person being present, his/her failings seem to be less important. The good things, and the good times, come to mind; and, after a while, the appeal of the relationship predominates, and the person who left, returns—usually to the annoyance of friends and family.
However, once back in close contact with the unsatisfactory partner, his/her failings become evident once more and, after a time, the couple breaks up again.
This process recurs over and over again, usually with shorter times together and longer times apart, until the breakup is irrevocable. Even then, there are remaining doubts and regrets. That relationship is never over entirely until someone new has appeared and become important. At that point, thinking back on the previous relationship, disgusted, my patients are likely to tell me something like:
“I can’t understand why I put up with that crap for such a long time.”
So, I do not tell those heading to a breakup to stop dating the offending partner. I tell them to start dating other people. Inevitably, at that particular point, they do not want to date other people; but that is what they must do. The bad relationship will come to an end, once and for all, when someone else has appeared.(c) Fredric Neuman 2013 Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog