A Perspective on Healthy Love
by Wendy Keller
Have you been thinking about leaving your marriage or your relationship? Lots of people suffer for years and years before they make the incredibly difficult decision to get out. I’ve been single-again for nearly 18 years, so my perspective is that of someone who has watched endless friends go in and out of marriages, love affairs, adulterous affairs, and live-in relationships. I’ve observed their mistakes, challenges and (to me) blindly foolish decisions. This is what I see:
1. People often get into relationships for the wrong reasons, consciously or unconsciously. Perhaps it’s to stave off loneliness, perhaps it’s to prove to a recent ex that you’re lovable, perhaps it is to make your family proud. Sometimes it’s about money, or getting help with little kids – or a baby on the way. To me, this just seems sad. To enter into anything without being clear about your own motives, the other person’s, and the character traits of both parties just seems like a waste of tears and time.
2. People stay too long in sick, dead and irreparably damaged relationships. I did. Lots of friends are right this very moment enduring cruelty, unrelenting fighting, extreme sorrow, fear, guilt, pain and trauma. It breaks my heart to say this, but fully half of my friends are miserable in their relationships, but lack the courage, wisdom, resources, vision to leave.
The Great Theory that counseling can save a relationship is not supported by the statistical outcome of marriage or relationship therapy. In some cases, when both parties are ready, willing and able to work at it, yes, counseling can help the broken parts not be so painful. But if the relationship is already gone and marriage counseling is a last ditch effort – and one partner doesn’t want to go or thinks the problem is all the other person’s fault – the chances of change are really, really slim. It’s hard work to change long-held patterns.
In my opinion as an unqualified, untrained person without a degree in counseling, but a heck of a lot of years of observation, here’s what I believe:
A. If you’re already in a committed relationship and share children, a business or other assets, it’s in your best interests to fix it if it is fixable. That is, if YOU and the other person can admit you are creating this negative dynamic together and that it is going to take two willing people to fix it. There’s always the addict and the enabler; there’s always the abuser and the abused. Am I saying you “deserve” to be stuck with a drunk, an abuser or an addict? Of course not. But the fact that you stay means so far, you’re agreeing to his or her game.
B. To get things fixed, both parties have to be willing to look at their contribution to the problem, including you. This is usually under the supervision of a qualified therapist. That doesn’t mean one forces, threatens or bribes the other into counseling – it means both say “This relationship is important to me, as is your happiness. Let’s work on this together.” Only in that situation is counseling a viable option. The old joke comes to mind: “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer: “Just one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.” Do you? Or are you stuck in “I’m a victim! I’m suffering!” mode?
C. If you or your children are in bodily danger, leave now. No two ways about it. There are shelters, there are friends, there are churches, there are organizations that can help you. Go to Google and type in “Battered Women’s Shelter”. If someone is hurting your kids in any way, leave at once. You will perpetuate the cycle of abuse if you do not. Do it today.
D. If you want to get outside help and your partner doesn’t, write down in neutral language (that means, without emotion or accusation) the logical, calm, clear reasons you believe therapy must be sought. As in “We spend much of our time when we’re together arguing over things that happened in the past” and “The amount of time we spend arguing could be spent on other things that enhance our life together, our economic base, our home maintenance…” (whatever). The reason you are writing this down as unemotionally as possible is so YOU don’t get hysterical or mean and so the other person can hear you like a judge would listen to an attorney make a case for her client – rationally and based on facts.
E. If the situation is painful to you, and your partner refuses repeatedly to seek outside help (over the course of, say, six months of asking), or even to listen to your rational facts about why intervention is beneficial, you have to make a choice. Will you continue to pour energy into this relationship or will you decide to cut bait? Being a grown up is all about making choices. Don’t abdicate your power with wishful thinking that things will magically get better. Most abusers and users go through “honeymoon” periods where they are on their best behavior…until it happens again.
Often, people use money and children as the reason they don’t leave a toxic situation. As for money, I can say only this: reducing your standard of living is a VERY small price to pay for peace of mind! I did it when I left my husband and I would do it again in a heartbeat to get away from the life-draining marriage I endured for ten years.
And as for the children, this is where I want to SCREAM at the friends I see in awful marriages! Most of them are victims of homes where their own parents fought, cheated, hated. C’mon! It’s so obvious that if you were raised watching a bad marriage that your chances of re-creating a bad marriage and considering it normal or at least tolerable are very high! SO WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO YOUR CHILDREN? Why pass on your parents’ sick legacy? Let the buck stop here, right now! Tell yourself you are saving your children and your grandchildren from repeating the family legacy. GET HELP OR GET OUT! I know thousands of single mothers who will tell you, as I will, the worst day out of their marriages is better than the best day in them.
I can’t tell you specifically what to do, but I can tell you why this is so hard for you to decide. A secret little part of you is worried that you’re not lovable enough, that this is all you deserve, that you can’t do better so you may as well tolerate the intolerable. “Put up or shut up”. So you live your life wounded, hiding it from your conscious mind how bad it really is – for you, for the kids. To get out, you have to take a leap of faith. You have to work up your courage to say, “THIS IS IT! I am not taking it anymore!” When you change, the relationship changes, because you are half of the relationship. Fake it til you make it! Pretend you love and care enough about yourself to want the best for yourself! Pretend you had perfect parents and are thus perfectly capable of choosing what’s best for you.
When the pain is great enough, you’ll leave. Stop complaining about your relationship. Stop wondering secretly if this is all you should have in life. You were made to seek happiness – that’s why you notice when you’re miserable! That’s proof right there that you have a moral duty TO YOURSELF to take care of yourself, to love yourself – even if no one else in your entire life ever loved you the right way. It begins with you!
Only you can make the right decision in your specific relationship. But look in the mirror this afternoon, when you’re in the bathroom and have some privacy. Stare into your own eyes. Ask yourself, “Is this really how I want to live the rest of my life?” If the answer is no, take action now.