Advice for Getting “Unstuck”
I am sitting with Genevieve and Dina* in couple’s therapy. They are in their thirties and have been living together for two years. While the issues they describe are particular to them, they also resemble a lot of couples I see: straight or gay, young or old. Their relationship has been rocky for six months. There is no violence or abuse, but they argue often and the arguments don’t ever really seem to get resolved.
I ask them if they want to stay together or if they want to break-up. Dina says that she is committed to the relationship. Then Genevieve drops the “A-bomb.”
“I am just not sure. I feel terrible. I love Dina, and sometimes it feels really good, but I am not sure if we can make it. I don’t know whether this relationship makes sense. Dina knows it. I feel like I have taken her prisoner.”
Defusing the A-Bomb: Ambivalence
The A-bomb is ambivalence. We all have had the experience of wanting two irreconcilable things; “I want to keep my job and I want to quit” or “I want to live in Vancouver but I also want to live in Los Angeles.” Everybody who has been in a relationship has said; “I want to be in this relationship and not be in it.” Usually this lasts a short time. A kiss from our partner or yet another unsatisfying night out helps us decide.
As you accumulate history it can become harder to commit to staying or going. If there has been a lot of hurt and disappointment and a lot of love and connection a person may feel like Genevieve; stuck in ambivalence. It feels pretty awful for both people when one partner has a foot out the door. It is hard for either of them to make changes that might make things better when neither partner knows if they will still be together next week.
Be Wary of Metaphors
I recently heard a piece of advice for therapists that comes from the rational-emotive behavior therapy of Albert Ellis for working with couples where one partner is ambivalent. But you don’t need to be in therapy to use it. The metaphor Genevieve used to describe her ambivalence can actually keep her stuck longer, so pay attention to it and gently challenge it.
Genevieve says that she feels like she has taken Dina prisoner. I hear similar dire descriptions from ambivalent partners a lot. This metaphor says a lot about Genevieve’s thoughts and feelings; the consequences of making any choice seem catastrophic and Dina is helpless.
While Genevieve really does feel those things, they aren’t actually true. What’s more those thoughts aren’t helpful for making a choice she can feel okay about.
So, if you are feeling stuck, try challenging the metaphor and the ideas of catastrophe and your partner’s helplessness. Will one of you actually die if you leave the relationship or stay?
Extremely unlikely. Neither broken hearts nor six more months in the relationship are going to kill anybody. Is your partner powerless? No. He or she is a grown-up. If the ambivalence gets to be too much s/he can say “I have had enough of this,” and leave.
If you are the committed one, tell your partner, “If not knowing gets to be too much for me, I’ll go.”
Making the hard decision to stay or leave is tough. Don’t complicate it with unrealistic fears and fantasies and the guilt and worry they generate. Having those extra pressures off our shoulders can help us to get unstuck about whether to stay or go.
*This couple is a composite. Real names are not used.
Jeremy Wexler has a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Columbia University. He sees couples and families at the Montreal Therapy Centre. His areas of particular interest are the emotional lives or boys and men, families dealing with the emotional challenges of raising kids who have learning difficulties, how schools can best support the social and emotional lives of kids, and couples looking for better ways to cope with anger. You can read his writing on relationships, families, schools and kids on his blog at www.jeremywexlertherapy.com