Should I stay, or should I go now? If I go, there will be trouble. And if I stay, it will be double.
The Clash lead vocalist Mick Jones sings these words in the iconic 1981 punk rock song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” It’s the epitome of relationship limbo hell where the pain of leaving is unfathomable. Yet, the thought of staying is even worse.
Do you remain in a familiar hell, or do you run headlong into heartbreak? Neither option sounds ideal. To help you decide, a therapist may ask you questions like:
- How much of your situation is caused by your partner?
- How much of your situation is caused by you?
- What about your situation, don’t you like? Would you find these challenges elsewhere?
- What do you like about your situation? Would you find these strengths elsewhere?
- How do you communicate your feelings? What reaction do you receive when you do?
You may be asking yourself how to save your marriage. While saving your marriage (or not) is a decision you make together with your partner, the decision to stay or leave is one you make on your own.
Here are some frequently asked questions (and answers) to help you make what can feel like an impossible decision.
Is it okay to want my partner to change?
One of the pervasive myths about relationships is that we should accept our partners completely for who they are and not want them to change. It’s okay to want your partner to change. Wanting your partner to change is not incompatible with love. It’s the work of love.
Love should be a classroom where people can mutually educate each other in a spirit of support and compassion. This does not mean trying to make your partner more like you. Instead, it’s about being skillful at how you educate and communicate with them.
Are you partnered with someone who is open to influence? How skillful are you at exerting influence?
Shouting orders and making unilateral demands is not effective. You need to be able to communicate in a way that optimizes your chances of being heard. This includes knowing how to exert influence, using soft-start ups, not making a big deal out of your partner being different. It also means not taking it personally if they can’t read your mind or have different ways of expressing love than you do.
If you’re spending enormous amounts of time (skillfully) trying to teach your partner and they still do not accept influence or show interest or concern, that’s a problem.
Have I tried everything?
We know from researcher John Gottman that the average couple waits six years from the onset of a problem to seek help. We also know from Bill Doherty, the creator of discernment counseling, that 12% of couples going through divorce are uncertain about whether or not they really want to divorce. That’s a lot of relationships and families that could have been spared.
How much pain have you swept under the rug over the years? Have you tried everything? No stone should be left unturned. Your relationship should be a place to learn, practice, and grow. Adapting this growth mindset could be a game-changer for the relationship. At the very least, it will change things for the better for you as an individual.
In her book Uncoupling, Diane Vaughan talks about the unspoken agreement many couples enter into. One person believes they are telling their partner they are unhappy in a million ways but never really comes out and say as much. In contrast, the other person senses their partner is unhappy but never really comes out and acknowledges it.
It’s a silent pact that, over time, turns into accrued negative sentiment. Ultimately, the relationship hits a tipping point where one person finally blows out or does something rash (like has an affair). Ask yourself how much you’ve communicated your feelings and whether you’ve done so in a way that increases the chances your partner can hear you versus responding defensively.
Am I holding my relationship to an unrealistic standard?
The Disney-produced idea of “happily ever after” has created an unrealistic standard in our society for romantic love. In a 2016 article for The New York Times, Alain de Botton argues that you’ll marry the wrong person, and that’s okay. He says we must abandon the idea that “a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning” because “choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.”
The late Dan Wile, creator of Collaborative Couple Therapy, echoes this sentiment in his book After the Fight where he writes, “When choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems.” If you’re expecting a relationship free from conflict and suffering, you may need to adjust your expectations.
Might there be something I am missing?
According to the fundamental attribution error, most of us are prone to a bias that makes us blind to our faults and hyper-aware of our partner’s. This means we can’t see the forest through the trees. We are inclined to think the problem is the other.
Brent Atkinson calls this Misplaced Assumption of Overall Blame. It correlates with John Gottman’s idea that contempt is the belief your partner is more flawed than you. We make assumptions that are often fueled by going to “thirds,” like friends or family who side with us, not knowing the whole picture. If you are missing something, you may very well act in ways that ultimately sabotage your relationship and/or yourself in the process.
What if I repeat the same mistakes in my next relationship?
It’s common to worry about repeating the same mistakes in your next relationship. What if the alternative is actually worse instead of better?
Look for themes in terms of places you find yourself in again and again. By the time we hit a certain age, most of us have a sense of where we fall short and struggle and where we are strong. Mistakes in a romantic relationship are not so different from mistakes in other relationships. For example, if you fear being assertive, that is likely to come up in other relationships in your life.
You don’t have to repeat the same mistakes. There are concrete tools to help you get unstuck, learn new behaviors, and improve the quality of connections in your life. If you do the hard work to learn and grow, it will benefit you as a parent, colleague, and partner—regardless of whether your current relationship endures.
Am I making a terrible mistake?
It’s also normal (and natural) to second guess your decision. If you stay, you may have regrets and grief about what could have been if you left. But if you leave, you may have regrets and grief about what could have been if you stayed.
There’s no wrong or right decision. Sometimes in life, we must choose between two torments. Recognize that there comes gain and loss with staying, and with leaving, there comes gain and loss. Take a hard look at yourself and ask, “Do I like who I am in this relationship? Do I have regrets? If I focus just on areas where I am falling short (for my partner, myself, my children), what would I need to change?”
Part of love is grieving the relationship you fantasized you would have with your partner and leaning into the relationship you do have. It’s about seeing what’s there with grace and humility. In grieving what you’ve lost, you make room for the new, for possibility, and for potential.
As Brené Brown says, we can write our stories instead of having our stories write us. There is the option to own how things go, to do love and life versus be done by it. So should you stay or should you go now? Ultimately, you have the power to choose.