Many clients begin therapy to decide whether to stay in a relationship. “Should I stick it out or jump ship?” they debate. On a deep level, most of them know (as we all do), whether a relationship is healthy. And there are a host of reasons—both practical and emotional—that we may stay committed even when we know that a relationship is not ideal. First there are the children—we dread the idea of harming them through a nasty (or even amiable) divorce or separation. Then there’s the fear of financial instability and our conviction that we will not survive without a partner’s income (perhaps not unfounded in this economy). And finally there are all those years we’ve already committed. We stay due to our extensive, shared history; we have invested so much in the relationship that we feel unable to leave. In business terms we might explain this as a “sunk cost.”
Underneath our pragmatic reasoning and logical explanation, there may be pesky questions that tug at our sleeve despite our best efforts to ignore them. Whether gay or straight, male or female, the decision of whether to leave a relationship generally boils down to this: If I leave, will I regret it? Another version is this: If I leave, will I be able to find someone else, or will I spend my life alone?
If we are struggling with these questions, it might mean that we are staying in a relationship to avoid a feared outcome. We remain with a partner because we are petrified to find out what else the future could hold; we want to avoid potential regret. After all, there is no guarantee that we will be better off than we are at present.
How should we evaluate whether a relationship is healthy and positive? Many of us have our parents as relational role models, but sometimes theirs is not the kind of marriage we wish to emulate. Given our highly mobile society, we rarely live near an extended kin network, so we don’t have the opportunity to see how aunts, uncles and grandparents made their relationships work (or didn’t). And of course we can only get so far comparing our relationship to Brad and Angelina, Heidi and Spencer, or even Al and Tipper. Besides, who knows what really happens behind closed doors, anyway?
Instead of operating out of fear—making decisions to avoid the what-ifs of the future—it might be helpful to have criteria by which to consider our relationship. I’m fond of Dr. Jean Baker Miller’s “Five Good Things,” which she used to characterize “growth-fostering relationships,” both romantic and otherwise. As she explained, “Growth-fostering relationships empower all people in them. These [relationships] are characterized by:
1. A sense of zest or well-being that comes from connecting with another person or other persons.
2. The ability and motivation to take action in the relationship as well as other situations.
3. Increased knowledge of oneself and the other person(s).
4. An increased sense of worth.
5. A desire for more connections beyond the particular one.”
“A sense of zest,” she wrote. You’ve gotta love a woman who believed that relationships should provide us with this.
If you are underwhelmed by these five things, read the list again. And perhaps a third time, as well. Dr. Miller’s criteria are remarkably simple, which is why they’re poignant and powerful. They can be applied to any relationship in a meaningful, useful way. I’m particularly drawn to the idea that what happens in our private, romantic relationships has an impact on how we carry ourselves through the world, as well as on what we bring to other relationships. At their core, relationships should be more than merely transactional partnerships or enduring habits; they should help us feel worthwhile and empowered. End of story.
End of story, unless yours is the story being told, and the answers are endlessly elusive.
Clients sometimes wish that I possessed clairvoyant abilities to predict whether they would be happier staying or leaving a relationship. Yet unfortunately this is not a skill taught in graduate school. My powers of prediction are limited to knowing that turkey meatloaf is for dinner and that I’ll read my daughter Green Eggs and Ham for the millionth time before bed tonight.
I do know that sometimes the most we can do is live the questions, as Rilke suggests. And if we’re determined to make a decision, criteria like Dr. Miller’s might help. Oh, I guess I know one more thing: my marriage is much zestier than the meatloaf that will soon be in my stomach. And that’s answer enough for me.