Suzanne Lachmann Psy.D.

Me Before We

Leaving Doesn’t Have to Be so Scary

How to look past a miserable relationship with hope and optimism

Posted Oct 31, 2013

If you've been miserable in your relationship for too long, the logical thing to do is leave. But if there's been trauma, betrayal, chaos in your life, you may fear the unknown. Therefore, how can you leave an unhappy relationship when your distrust in the world compels you to stay put, regardless of how unhappy you are in the relationship. It seems like any alternative would be even worse.  

It's so easy to give up – to resolve to remain trapped in your unhappy circumstances. Recently this comment was posted on my Facebook page: “It’s too late for me, I can't get myself to go.” But, these same people support others’ attempts at leaving their relationships.

One of the main reasons people remain trapped is their inability to visualize a better future. Because of their own expectations and the expectations their partners have asserted over time, they feel convinced that if they were to leave, they would be alone, without support, that they would be abandoning their partner, or they would alienate and overburden people who are important to them by leaning on them too much during a vulnerable time. Furthermore, they fear isolation, poverty, pain, guilt, and a myriad of other things.

The fears end up trumping what is best for them in their individual lives. Leaving is too daunting. They dismiss the possibility of using support systems or don't have faith in them, and most importantly, they have trouble acknowledging their own resilience in the face of extreme challenges.

The decision to stay or go involves weighing your expectations for the future against the quality of your life in the present. If you had a traumatic or chaotic childhood, and you have experienced great pain in previous relationships, your expectations may make leaving seem like a particularly bad bet. At least your current, miserable relationship is a known entity, and it couldn't possibly be as miserable as the rest of the wide, painful, disappointing world you've known.

These negative beliefs make it hard to imagine that things might actually be okay in the future. Serenity, contentment, peace, relief – these feelings are so foreign that it’s unimaginable to believe they could ever belong to you.

Meanwhile, you feel miserable with your partner but you keep trying, and you keep hitting the same wall over and over. You put your best face on for the kids (if you have them), but the extent to which you feel deflated and defeated is still apparent to them, no matter how hard you try to hide it. It’s because at your core, you feel miserable with yourself. You feel so broken down that change just seems too daunting and too overwhelming. The self-loathing you feel at your own paralysis just disgusts you further. Making room for more positive options moving forward is for others, not for you, right?

Let's understand how to start to shift your view of the future. It’s never too late to discover hope. The past does not determine the future when you are willing to look at your own contributions, learn from them, and work toward believing that you are worth fighting for. You are also wiser at this stage. You have learned many lessons, and consequently, you are far less prone to making the same mistakes in the future. Through finding just a little bit of hopefulness about possibilities for yourself moving forward, you will make positive shifts in the way you think about your life and what may lie beyond your current painful, dissatisfying relationship.

Your greatest challenge is to try to picture a life for yourself beyond your relationship. Consider that being out of the relationship might bring relief, contentment, peace, and serenity rather than perpetuating shame, fear, frustration, guilt, hopelessness, anger, and other negative feelings.

To begin the process of thinking more openly, work on identifying and untangling the repetitive patterns, fears, beliefs, and ways that you oppress and sabotage yourself that contribute to being stuck. Looking at your own contributions allows more room for change than does solely blaming your partner for keeping you stuck. Understand that you have played an active role in remaining where you are.

Most importantly, remind yourself that although things have been awful in the past, it doesn’t mean it will always be that way. I must say here that if you are in an outright abusive relationship, you may feel forced to stay. Do your best to get out. You need to find a safe haven outside the relationship as soon as possible. For those who don't have the same level of urgency to leave, but are profoundly unhappy staying, keep working on shifting your perspective toward a more hopeful, positive future.

The feelings of undeservingness you experience are old. They have followed you around for a long time. Though it may feel like all you know, and though your partner may insist that you will never have it “this good” anywhere else, these experiences and messages don’t mean that chaos and trauma will happen again if you leave. You can influence emotional outcomes. And wouldn't it to be great to feel utter relief wash over you?

Of course, being able to put words to your experience, feeling more hopeful about the future, and feeling more compassion for your own plight does not make you immediately able to walk out the door of a bad relationship. That’s absolutely understandable and okay. It does, however, allow you to feel less alone in it, and to begin to internally shift all the deeply embedded beliefs that pain and unhappiness are all you deserve.

Learning to look past a miserable relationship is a process in and of itself – it’s your process. Maybe your process can allow you to at least imagine being better off rather than worse off on the flip side of this relationship. There’s relief in just envisioning a better outcome, even if you are nowhere near ready to act on it. It can even create a little bit of lightness and therefore a little less isolation and despair into your day.

Even if you can't bring yourself to leave today, tomorrow, next week, or even next year, try to imagine the possibility of relief, serenity, and contentment in your post-breakup life. It will send some hope through you. Over time, reframing your experiences and allowing yourself to envision the future in a more optimistic way can begin to dismantle all the junk that has kept you stuck all this time.

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