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Relationship Ambivalence: Should You Stay or Should You Go?

The relationship isn't keeping you stuck. It's your denial of the big picture.

Key points

  • Relationship ambivalence is extremely stressful and leaves little room to feel safe and at ease in one's own skin.
  • Many people stay in unhappy relationships due to a fear of being left alone with their own emotions.
  • Relationship ambivalence may result in a couple staying together if a new energy is brought into the current closed system.

If you find yourself second-guessing your relationship, you likely feel just as overwhelmed at the thought of ending it as you do at the thought of sticking it out. This kind of ambivalence is extremely stressful and leaves little room to feel safe and at ease in your own skin and life.

Yet, many keep pushing forth for years and even decades, despite this level of ambivalence. Over the years, the resentment and anger mount, but so do the sunk costs of having committed more and more of yourself, your time, and your resources to this relationship.

People in this situation rarely sit down to look at the bigger picture. Instead, they remain stuck, with one foot in and one foot out of the relationship. In reality, it’s not the relationship that's keeping you stuck; it’s your denial of the bigger picture.

Take a moment to really look at what’s happening so you can gain some clarity on how to move forward.

  1. Consider the larger themes of the relationship. Part of why you are stuck is that you're likely dealing with issues day-to-day versus the bigger picture. You may think about your partner quite a bit but more in terms of ruminating about a negative interaction or what they did or didn’t do that hurt you that day. Instead, take a moment now to think through the bigger picture of your relationship. When is the last time you felt connected to your partner? What was going on with you or with them that made this so? Have you never felt safe and connected with this person? How do you think they see you?
  2. Instead of complaining to friends or family about your partner’s inadequacies or your upset, start having honest conversations with your partner. This means actually sharing that for months or possibly years, you’ve considered leaving the union and why you are feeling this way. Ask and be open to how your partner feels in return. If you find your partner is emotionally abusive in response to this conversation, then this relationship may be unworkable. If you can’t be real about your feelings, it is close to impossible to do the work required to move forward.
  3. What are you doing that is contributing to the problems in the relationship? It’s easy to project all of our issues onto our romantic other. Instead of looking at our own weaknesses, we just stay focused on our counterpart’s weaknesses. But until you really confront yourself and what your role is in the dysfunction, you're bound to continue to repeat it (with your current and even with future partners). If you're really honest with yourself, what do you bring to the relationship that is unhealthy? Consider what you do that you know deep down makes your partner feel small, hurt, dismissed, or rejected. Or, what do you do that enables your partner’s treatment of you—for example, not speaking up or not creating or maintaining boundaries. Commit to working on yourself. This will pay off, with or without this particular relationship.
  4. Confront your fear of being alone: Many hang on to unhealthy unions out of fear of being alone with themselves. Often, this is due to being phobic about emotions and being left alone with them (see my post on healthfully being alone here). In truth, you will be more effective in this relationship and brave in doing and saying what needs to be said if you work on your fear of being alone. Even people who are married for 30 years need to feel like, if they had to, they can leave to take care of themselves. This knowledge will free you to have these difficult and possibly life changing conversations.
  5. Do something differently. This could mean you stay in the union, but you and your partner agree to couples therapy or to a weekly time together to reconnect. This could also mean you decide to do a trial separation and see how you both feel. Either way, the point is you have been living in a closed system for too long. Bring in new energy by taking one actionable behavioral step forward. For more check out my book, Breaking Up and Divorce-5 Steps.