Don't Leave a Relationship With Too Simple an Explanation

Before you end a relationship, learn the lessons it can teach you

Posted May 30, 2020

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Ask Carly why she and Matt recently divorced and she’ll tell you that she found out that he was having an affair, and, she’ll underscore, this was not the first time. And it makes sense that Carly would say this: This is her wound, the cause in her mind of their demise as a couple, and it's very real. And while Carly may naturally decide to use this as her quick one-liner explanation to friends and family when they ask why her relationship ended, hopefully the story she eventually tells herself is a bit more complex.

While in Carly's case the precipitating issue was Matt's affair, it could have just as easily have been a drug addiction or workaholism or a hot temper. What’s important here is not so much the precipitating problem, but resisting the easy tendency we all have of reducing traumatic events into simple black-and-white thinking, and, for her, privately believing that this is the moral of the story of her relationship. 

Why is this important?

Because relationships in reality are more complicated than our takeaway, and what you see as the problem is usually for the other guy a bad solution to other problems that lie beneath. There are lessons to be learned by drilling down and uncovering those underlying problems and understanding the nuances of the relationship dynamics.

If Carly understandably leaves her relationship with Matt thinking that their problem was only his affairs, the psychological takeaway that she carries forward into future relationships is either that men can’t be trusted — and so she needs to be vigilant and keep future partners on a short leash — or that certain men are just this way and she needs to find someone different, maybe one more passive or dependent on her.

The danger is that this simple explanation leads to one-size-fits-all behavior that can easily lead to self-fulfilling prophecies: If, in her next relationship, her partner eventually acts out, perhaps not by having an affair but by, say, drinking too much at least in part because he has a hard time handling the resentment he feels because of her constant suspicion and control, this in turn will only confirm Carly's belief that men are unreliable and can't be trusted. Or she overshoots the mark, finds a more passive partner but then finds herself resentful in a short time that she is doing too much of the emotional lifting in the relationship.

What to do instead

Ideally, Matt and Carly would both take the time to deconstruct their relationship and the affair. This is not a time to blame or rant, but to understand how and why Matt started the affair, how he rationalized it in his own mind, why he didn’t stop it when he knew it would be hurtful to Carly. More importantly, she wants to know from Matt what was possibly missing in their relationship—what problems were not being addressed. In such a discussion Carly may be able to identify and talk about her own unhappiness, concerns, and needs.

And if they are not able to have these conversations or Matt is unable to supply these answers for whatever reason, she still needs to slow down, be curious, and find her own answers through reflection, or through therapy. She doesn’t need to condone Matt’s behavior or blame herself but understand those small but powerful nuances of the relationship — that Matt perhaps felt micromanaged by Carly or not appreciated enough made the affairs a source, albeit a poor one, for his needs, or that it really was about something within him and there was some underlying problem that in the future she needs to be better able to be aware of in her partners.

With this information, Carly can move forward with a more complete understanding of the dynamics of her relationship, hopefully apply this knowledge in her future ones, and avoid repeating history.

Life is a process of elimination, learning lessons through experience and mistakes, and applying these hard-won lessons in the future. Take the time to unravel and learn the lessons that your relationships and your life can teach you.