When making choices for ourselves, it is human to occasionally allow our wants to override what we need—or what may be good for us in the longer term. Wants dictate our actions even when they are self-destructive. This is seen in almost every aspect of life—eating excess junk food while knowing one is going to feel sick later on; staying up late to binge on TV even though work calls early the next morning; not exercising despite health issues; having one more cocktail—the list goes on.
This tendency also demonstrates itself in our relationships. Although people may know quite clearly that a particular love interest or even marital partner is not necessarily good for them, some persevere in the partnership anyway.
A person in this situation may lament how they can’t imagine their life without the partner, or feel so in love with him or her, so enthralled, that they could not possibly let go of the union. Others cite how dependent they have grown on the person or how intertwined their lives have become because of work, children, or social connections. They can’t imagine exiting.
Typically people feel an extreme desire to remain in the relationship despite experiencing consistent frustration, emotional upheaval, and disappointment. When asked what keeps them working so hard for a relationship that makes them feel awful, most say they can’t imagine it any other way. They are at a loss for picturing—or allowing themselves to picture—a life without their partner. The thought of ending the relationship only makes them feel panic. So they quickly return to the work of sustaining and improving it—to no avail.
People caught in this pattern avoid looking at their own flaws and areas of needed growth by focusing all of their attention on sustaining the unsustainable. By focusing on the partner and continually having to work through relationship conflict and disappointment, they have few emotional resources left to have to deal with their own issues. As the years progress, their issues continue to go unaddressed, and they become increasingly dependent on staying in relationships with people who disappoint, subsisting on the inconsistent, momentary highs.
When these patterns culminate in long-term commitment or even marriage, the sacrifices a person makes in terms of their personal growth mount. What was once a feeling of not wanting to live without the other becomes a depression and hopelessness that one has wasted so many years in an unhappy union. This realization only serves to further keep the person in the relationship, since they are now utterly defeated by the idea of starting over.
Letting Go to Trade Up
Letting go is perhaps the most potent mechanism of self-help. Giving up fighting for something that should be naturally easy can be enormously relieving. Comforting the tenderest of heartache is the self-knowledge that, despite the loss, one has put his or her own health first. This knowledge is immediately reparative and begins a cascade of positive change and feelings of wellbeing.
As a person grieves the loss of who they thought they wanted, and who they thought they wanted to be, they also experience the soreness and pain this person brought into their life. Not wanting to experience this pain again, they begin to reflect on who they are at their core, and what they truly need for ultimate fulfillment.
This kind of reflection, when done thoroughly and with time, almost never leads to another unhappy union.
Keep the discussion going. Click here to follow Jill on Facebook or here to follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber. Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships