Imagine a car wedged up on a curb with its tires elevated off the ground, unable to get traction to move in either direction. The engine revs, and the wheels spin, but the car doesn’t move. It’s stuck.
In the same way, we can get stuck in our relationships when we’re afraid of getting hurt. We know something has to change, but simultaneously we can’t go back to the way things were. We’ve hit a threshold.
Unable to go backward or forwards, we get caught in what NCCT Founder and Director Kerry Lusignan calls “relationship limbo-hell.”
When we’re in relationship limbo-hell, our behaviors become self-perpetuating. We turn away and turn against each other’s bids for emotional connection to avoid our own vulnerability, and in turn, erode trust and undermine our ability to connect and repair. It’s a slow death.
The good news is that relationship limbo-hell isn’t a permanent state. In fact, at NCCT, we’ve helped more than 1,000 couples get unstuck and move forward with clarity, even if it means ending the relationship. But to understand how to exit relationship limbo-hell, we must first understand how we enter it.
How we enter relationship limbo hell
Entering relationship limbo-hell doesn’t happen overnight. It happens slowly over time. Once you enter, it can feel a lot like Groundhog Day: you wake up every day with the same dynamics and have the same conversations repeatedly with the same results. You’re gridlocked. You can’t get traction. It feels like taking two steps forward and tens steps back.
You may be in relationship limbo-hell if:
- You have the same argument over and over
- When you bring up issues, your partner shuts you down
- You’ve stopped bringing up issues altogether
- You view your partner and your relationship in a negative way
- You make comparisons to real or imagined alternative partners
We can enter relationship limbo-hell by becoming what researcher Brené Brown calls “high-centered,” which is a way of offloading hurt. We choose feeling good (or good enough) over getting better and stay chronically suspended between breaking up and being together. Essentially, offloading hurt is an (understandable) defense against feeling vulnerable and experiencing loss, but long term, it virtually ensures your relationship will go down.
When we’re high-centered, according to Brown, we’re unable to move back and pretend something does not matter, but moving forward is too daunting. We do not initiate change (and move forward in turn) because we are afraid. Afraid of change, afraid of loss, afraid of the unknown. It’s easier to stay in a known hell than to go to an unknown heaven.
In addition to being high-centered, other ways of offloading hurt include:
- Chandeliering: Hurt that is pushed so far down that it can’t possibly resurface, but the slightest comment, mistake, or feedback can trigger rage or shame
- Bouncing Hurt: Using anger, blame, and/or avoidance when getting too close to emotion
- Numbing: Taking the edge off emotional pain with food, video games, Netflix, YouTube, etc.
- Stockpiling: Packing down and building up the pain until our body and/or mind is not well
- The Umbridge: Overly sweet and nice when in reality we feel resentful, hurt, and/or frustrated
When we avoid vulnerability and offload hurt, we become stuck in narrow ways of coping with relationship turmoil. Having a limited repertoire or a narrow tolerance for emotional distress inevitably turns us into one-trick ponies. And, if we only have one trick we can draw on when our relationship is in trouble, we are bound to come up empty-handed much of the time.
We can also enter relationship limbo hell if there’s a meta-emotion mismatch, where one person brings things up, and the other person shuts things down. A meta-emotion mismatch creates entrenched (and mismatched) ways of interacting ––missed opportunities for connection breed negative sentiment, which over time creates loneliness and deep ambivalence in the relationship.
How we exit relationship limbo hell
To exit relationship limbo hell, you must first make the difficult decision to change instead of staying the same. Remaining the same is comfortable (or at least familiar), and change means exposure to the risk inherent with unknowns. Ultimately, you have to choose between the known and the unknown.
Choosing the unknown involves letting go of control. It means focusing on yourself and the behaviors you do, which sabotage trust and connection in the relationship and committing to being a better person regardless of your partner.
It means acknowledging that the stuckness has become a perpetual state and requires both a perspective shift and radically new behaviors and skills from one (or both) people. The perspective shift must encompass taking a thorough self-inventory where you ask yourself, “What about this situation is being perpetuated by me?” Where are am I getting stuck? While simultaneously abstaining from focusing on where your partner is getting stuck.
Even if your partner never changes, there is tremendous healing and power in changing yourself. It requires taking a deep, hard look at the habits and tendencies that have dogged you for years. When you do this, you may find you’ve been missing things in terms of your role.
You get to a place where you say, “Living like this indefinitely is not tenable. I’m not crazy about my options, but I’m willing to try something new and make changes because long-term that holds the most hope for me/us.” Lusignan often recommends this article to people because it gets to the heart of stepping out of one’s role.
Ultimately, your ability to exit relationship limbo hell comes down to your relationship with loss. Can you take risks, initiate change, and be true to your core values, even if it could mean ending a relationship that’s no longer healthy? An NCCT couples therapist can help guide you and your partner through this process.
Remember, the purpose of couples therapy is not about saving your marriage or relationship. It’s about clarifying whether or not it should be saved. Sometimes, getting unstuck from relationship limbo-hell means ending the relationship, and that’s okay.
It’s better to have clarity than to be stuck in limbo at the end of the day.
Are you in relationship limbo hell?
Join NCCT Founder and Certified Gottman Therapist Kerry Lusignan for “Is My Marriage Worth Saving,“ a FREE webinar about gaining clarity, courage, and skills in making one of the toughest decisions of your life. Learn the most significant predictors of divorce and how they apply to your relationship. The most common mistake people make when their relationship is in crisis, three little-known ways trust erodes, and more. The webinar will be offered three times (March 31, April 5, April 7), and everyone who signs up will receive a recording. Sign up for free here.