Should I Stay in this Relationship?
15 Smart Questions to Help You Decide
(Hint: How you were loved shapes how you love.)
.Are you contemplating a break-up or divorce? What kind of information do you need to make a good decision?
Perhaps you’re listing your partners infractions or looking at the frequency of conflict or assessing your alignment on values and goals. As a couple’s therapist, I’ve had the opportunity to witness hundreds of people make decisions about whether to stay or go. I’m interested in the way people make these life-changing decisions. What is the evidence? What is it based on?
We can all make lists of our partners failings. There is conflict in every relationship (even if you don’t fight). There are differences in every relationship. I’ve learned that differences and conflict are often not the real deal-breakers. At the core of most people’s decision-making is the experience of love; feeling loved in the way you need to feel it.
Here are some questions to take you on a deeper dive into the nature of who you are—and who your partner is-- in a relationship.
Go through these questions with your partner. Take turns listening deeply.
Repeat 3 times; once related to your mother, father and one significant relationship from your past.
1. How did your mother/father/significant past person express love to you? (Choose the ones that apply below)
2. What was your reaction to her expressions of love? Describe your felt experience both in feelings and physical sensations (choose any that apply or add others).
3. On a spectrum, did their expression of love feel like it was a good fit, too much, not enough? If overstimulated by a parent’s love and attention, did you feel irritable, strong desire for freedom, or angry. If the love wasn’t enough, did you feel longing, sadness, emptiness, loneliness, or anger. If their love was exploitive, did you feel shame, anger, controlled or manipulated. Was love safe or unsafe? Was love consistent or inconsistent?
4. How did you behave in response to their love style?
5. In what ways did you feel deprived? What was missing for you?
6. How did you react to not getting what you wanted?
7. How were your thoughts and expectations changed? (i.e. People are like this…men are like this…women are like this….)
8. Did you believe you were worthy of love? Valued in the family? Worthy of attention? Worthy of being heard?
9. Did you feel ignored? Unworthy of being seen or heard?
10. As a result of these experiences, do you believe you can count on/depend on others?
11. Do you feel comfortable letting others see your need for love (i.e. being vulnerable and open)?
12. Is it easier for you to receive or give love?
13. What fears do you have around giving love? What feels safe and what feels too vulnerable?
14. What is your fantasy partner? If you could waive a magic want and have your partner love you in a way that is perfectly designed for your needs, what would that look like?
15. What did my gender, sexual orientation, religion and culture teach me about my lovability and how to love others?
Make a list of what you’ve learned about yourself. You may notice that you’ve developed feelings, thoughts and expectations about what love feels like, should feel like and even your capacity to give love. Your most salient experiences shaped how you view your present reality---and often result in misinterpretations of reality. As a couple’s therapist, I’ve learned not to take anyone’s story at face value. Any event being discussed in couples therapy has two distinct perspectives. There is no shared subjective experience.
We all project our past onto our present partner. Rather than seeing them as they are, we see them through the lens of our past. As a result, we make faulty assumptions about other people (this principle extends into other relationships as well).
I’ve observed that these distortions change over the course of time. In the early stages of a relationship, we often project idealized fantasies on to our partner; feelings are positive and loving. In middle stages, disillusionment sets in as we realize this human being is not our fantasy; here, anger emerges then grief sets in. Years into the relationship, deeper, childhood pain re-emerges, and more intense emotions show up.
At the intersection of reality and projection, my job as a therapist is to witness how people make meaning out of both perceptions. I’ve noticed themes across their narratives; assumptions about the partner or a situation. These are some common assumptions:
“I can’t depend on you.”
“You don’t really care about me.”
“You are trying to control me.”
“You are selfish/neglectful.”
When said out loud in session to the partner, “ I don’t think you care about me,” and the partner is able to respond, it usually becomes clear that it was not the partners intention. As we work through each of these deep assumptions over the course of therapy, a heaviness is lifted and the couple begins to talk about these assumptions with levity or in a constructive way that allows them to correct their behaviors and reach for a better way to love.
In order to make a wise decision about staying in a relationship, you want to use evidence that is grounded in reality and not distortion. Once you're able to let go of your assumptions, you will see your partner more clearly. His/her infractions will be contextualized. Your differences and conflicts will take on new meaning. If you want to stay together, use the information that you’ve learned about each other to craft new ways of interacting; specifically-tailored to your deprivations and longings----not in a way that keeps you trapped in your past, but in a way that allows you each to overcome the past and grow. Seek to create a corrective, healing set of patterns.
Your deal-breaker question: Are you willing and able to create a brand new love?
If you are not both willing and able to learn and grow, then perhaps you should part ways.
Dr. Engler's Articles on the Huffington Post:
Should You Get Pre-marital Counseling?
Women's Health Magazine interviews Dr. Engler on the factors to consider.
Why Moving in Together Kills Your Sex Life, and What to Do About It.
Men's Health Magazine interviews Dr. Engler about how to improve your sex life, and reviews her book, "The Men on My Couch."
11 Things That Actually Surprised This Sex Therapist.
BuzzFeed reviews Dr. Engler's new book, "The Women on My Couch."