When You Can't Leave: Making the Best of It

Building the best life you can, even if you feel you can't leave.

Posted Oct 10, 2018

You’ve given up trying, but that doesn’t mean that you can call it quits. The relationship is stale or dull; you’re both going through the motions, but you stay. Maybe it’s part of your core values, maybe part of your religious faith, or your commitment as a caretaker. Or maybe you are both committed to kids and need them to get launched, or you feel that a divorce would have too devastating impact on the children, or you fear how they might fare being alone with the other parent. Or maybe a divorce is just too costly, financially, emotionally—a cost you’re not willing or able to absorb right now.

We’re not talking about being trapped in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship where leaving is just too frightening and overwhelming to consider. In those situations, it is ultimately about escape, about support, doing whatever you need to not be victimized. No, here we’re talking about staying in but realizing and accepting that you are getting nothing or little back. Whatever your reason or rationale, you’re not fearful, but you are resigned, at least for now. How do you make the best of it?

Here are some dos and don’ts:

Maintain courtesy

Even though that warm intimacy is long gone, it’s important to cultivate a courteous climate in your home, especially if you have children. If irritability and tension fill the air, if you are both falling into the same ugly argument when stressed, it will mentally and physically take a toll all around. And even if you can't control the other guy, control yourself and do what you need to do to rein in those heated conversations, to set a tone of consideration. 

Negotiate rules of engagement/expectations

While regulating your emotions can help keep tensions from rising and becoming destructive, often they are fueled by differing expectations. Here is where you both want to clarify and negotiate the running of everyday life: How and what is family time? How do we interact as a couple? What do we each need and expect around individual time and activities? How should we handle holidays?

But before you sit down to talk, take time to decide and be clear in your own mind about what you ideally want — this is your starting point for negotiation — then see if you can move together to a win-win situation. And yes, if you feel that mediation or counseling may provide that safe place you need to have these conversations, use it.

Don’t lean on the kids

If you don’t have a steady partner to lean on, it’s easy to emotionally begin to lean on your children. This may take the form of becoming the super-parent and wrapping all of your life and good feelings in their lives; it may be your coming to depend on your oldest child to step in as a junior parent, or unwittingly finding yourself using her or him as a sounding board for your own struggles.

Don’t do this. The super-parent route puts a lot of pressure on kids; because they want to please, they wind up living your life rather than theirs. And if you lean on a child for support, it's easy for him or her to feel emotionally responsible for you, which distracts them from their own lives and development.

Develop outside activities/relationships

Even if you are resigned to the current state of your relationship, this doesn't mean that you need to be resigned to day-to-day life in an emotional desert. You want to find ways of getting some of your most important needs met; if you don't, you're likely to become depressed. Does this mean negotiating an open relationship? Maybe, but more often it is about engaging in activities that you are passionate about and finding people to share them with. Or, it may be making a conscious effort to develop more intimate relationships with friends who you can lean on and use for support when you need it. What you don't want to feel is trapped, accepting only what little you get.

Don’t be the victim or the martyr

If you are in a relationship and being emotionally or physically intimidated or victimized, you don't need to adjust to your reality, you need to leave it. But if you are in a stale or dead relationship where there is no threat, but you still find yourself falling into that victim mentality, it is likely a byproduct of a story you are telling yourself about your sad and oppressive situation. If that's the case, it's time to step back, rethink, and regroup: to acknowledge that you are not trapped, that you are making a choice, even though it is a difficult one, and double-checking that your staying is not laced with the magical thinking that if you just do that one "right" thing, it will all change and be better.

The martyr is at the other end of the pole from the victim where, instead of feeling trapped and oppressed, you are over-responsible and sacrificial. What feeds the martyr mentality are your expectations of some payoff for your self-denial and sacrifice — that the other person will finally appreciate you and change, that others will pat you on the back for being such a “wonderful” person — all very different from acting on your core values. The danger here is that when don't get the payoffs you expect (and you probably won't), you'll likely become resentful and depressed. Like the victim, you want to adopt an adult stance and make and take responsibility for making a firm decision on your own with no built-in expectations.

Keep the door open to change

Like it or not, and independent of what you might do, most people usually do change over time. The developmental model is that adults have 7 years of stability followed by 2-3 years of instability and transition. If your partner is in a transitional state, he or she may move out of it on their own and come out the other side in a better place. Similarly, if your partner has been in a long funk or emotional struggle, he or she, with or without outside supports, may gradually or suddenly gain some traction that ignites new outlook and new behaviors.

You want to open to these possibilities, but, unlike the victim or martyr, you want to be careful that you don't get seduced into believing that you can control the universe and if you just get it right it will change, nor do you want to get lost in crafting manipulative strategies; this will only eventually back-up on you. Stay open, but also let go.

Periodically step back and review

So, you initiate some or all of these steps, you have plan. The final challenge is not making this the new, forever-normal to replace the older, dysfunctional one; if you do, you will eventually once again wind up feeling stuck and depressed. To avoid this from happening, you want to periodically step way back and look at the big picture — How are my life and this relationship going? — and see if you need to tweak the current reality or do something bolder. And, if you do, have the courage to do it. 

There’s a subtle theme that runs through all of these suggestions; namely, that the path to making the best of it requires that you do now what you, as an individual, as a couple, have undoubtedly struggled to do for a long time — be clear with yourself and the other, be willing to compromise.

Be assertive and willing to change.