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Sitting on the Fence in Your Relationship? How to Get Off

Ambivalence is contagious. Maybe it's time for decisive action.

Key points

  • Couples often struggle and sit on the fence. They try but do not really try, wait for the other to change, and think it can go on forever.
  • The key to breaking this pattern is taking decisive action. Truly separate or commit to making clear behavioral changes.
  • Pick a path, commit to it, see what happens. If you need help, consider short-term counseling.
Source: PollyDot/pixabay

Kiera and Matt have been together for seven years, but for the last couple, it’s been a struggle. They’ve briefly separated for a few weeks then came back together.

They talk about breaking up, then giving it a try that lasts a couple of days, then fall back into talking about breaking up.

Kiera and Matt are sitting on the fence—stay or go—and the waffle back and forth. They are ambivalent, and the problem with ambivalence is that it is contagious. You waffle, and the other guy waffles or each is waiting for the other to make a solid move that can turn into a blink contest; they can do this forever. But if they want to move forward, they need to get off the fence.

They have two choices; they need to pick one and commit to it.

Option 1: Separate

Separate doesn’t mean permanently breaking up or, if married, filing for divorce tomorrow. What it does mean is being apart. Kiera rents a month-to-month furnished apartment, or Matt moves in with a friend or sister and stays in the basement.

They need to work out rules of engagement. How often do we talk or text, do we have date nights? What they don’t want to do is essentially live together but sleep in separate places where Matt comes over after work, they hang out together till 11, and then he goes home. The purpose of separating is to feel what it feels like to really be without the other.

Generally, the person most in favor of separation leaves and feels good or better—the tension is gone, they can do what they want; time to party—while the leftee often feels sad and lonely...or not. They need to give it about three months.

What usually happens is: the one who felt great and could do what they wanted finds that the glow has worn off, that they are lonely and missing the other, while the leftee pulls out of their depression and begins to feel better. Matt goes out with his sister to bar on a Friday night, meets some interesting people, and doesn’t feel so pessimistic. Or they both miss each other, have had time to reflect, and decide to try harder…or not.

Option 2: Seriously Work on the Relationship

The keyword is work. Here they both come up with the three things—not 30—that they want the other to do to feel like they’re trying, that will change the emotional climate. It needs to be clear and concrete. For example, don’t leave your shoes on the living floor, don’t leave your dirty dishes on the counter, initiate sex at least once a week, no arguing about the past, about whose reality is right, whose woes are bigger.

They each state what they want, openly and honestly negotiate, but mutually agree to do what the other wants. Then they put their heads down and do it.

And they don’t keep score. If you didn’t pick up your shoes, I’m not initiating sex. No, just do your side of the equation. Put your head down, do it for a month or two, and then stick your head back up: Has it made a difference? Is the emotional climate better? If not, what does that mean for the next steps? If yes, what can we add to the list, what do we need to finetune, how do we continue to build momentum?

The aim is to break the old patterns of treading water, complaining, and not decisively acting. And if this all seems too overwhelming or you can’t have these conversations, check out some short term couple counseling to have a safe place, to be honest, say what you want, help you move through the communication snags, learn the skills you need to know to run your relationship better.

If you’re not sure where you stand, what you want, check out short-term individual counseling where someone can ask the hard questions and help your define what’s important to you.

What do you need to get off the fence? Time to take action?