Life is about balance, and this includes relationships. Knowing when to fight, when to back down, and when to retreat doesn’t come written down in a handbook. There are very few situations where there is a black and white, wrong or write answer. They do exist, they are just far and few between. Knowing when to move away from a relationship is not easy. When do I let go of personal needs, wishes wants and would-likes and help my loved one, even if it causes me pain or problems? When do I walk away, admitting that my loved on is an anchor around my neck that is drowning me? These are questions to which there are few easy answers.
We will all struggle with something throughout our lives. Any time two or more people get together the struggles of one will affect the other. Many of these struggles will come and go, and some of them will be life-long struggles. Because we are social creatures we want to be with others and have their support and sponsorship as we move though struggles. We often turn to each other for validation and help. We all balance giving support when asked, and setting boundaries to make sure our needs are taken care of. In general giving this validation feels good as we help partners, friends and loved ones move through difficulties. When the support begins to weigh on us, or requires that we sacrifice our own identity, that is when the decisions get more difficult.
We enter in to relationships with someone that we love and care about, thinking that we can handle anything that comes our way. Then life happens. Accidents, illness, mental health, job loss and addiction are just some of the things that can change a partner or create difficulty in the home. When we signed on with our partners we signed on to be supportive and sponsors through thick and thin. We didn’t sign on to bail at the first sign of trouble. We also didn’t sign on to sacrifice our identity, our values and needs, or even our health and safety.
A situation in which you are in physical danger, especially in which you feel as though your life or the life of your children is in danger is a black and white situation in which you need to leave. There are safety plans available online that will help with packing lists and exit plans to keep you safe. It is often a struggle to leave a partner in times of abuse because we often know why they are doing what they are doing. We know their pain and their struggles. We know their insecurities that lead to their actions. Their pain, insecurities and struggles never excuse or OK physical assault or rape. A situation in which you or your children are in danger is not one to stay in.
A situation that is a little less black or white is when addiction is involved. You wouldn’t bail on your partner struggling with cancer, and like cancer, addiction is a disease. At the same time drug and alcohol addiction creates strong personality changes in partners and can lead to emotional, physical and financial burdens. It can tax families to the limit, especially children. In addiction people lose a part of themselves. A part that can be regained, but in the interim the actions of the addict can destroy a family. They key is the willingness of the addict to get help. An addict can’t be a good anything but a good addict. They can’t be a good parent, a good employee, or a good friend. The addiction is a monkey on their back that takes over and demands to be fed at all costs. Only you can decide if the price is too much. The danger aspect applies here as well. If you are in physical danger, you must protect yourself. If your partner is wild and aggressive when they are using but great when they are sober, you still need to leave. When you signed on with your partner you agreed to help them, and a strong supportive partner can make the difference between sobriety and addiction. It all goes back to your partner’s willingness to get help. If they won’t get help, it doesn’t matter how supportive you are, they won’t change.
If you are ever asked to give up a big part of who you are for another partner or a relationship, it probably isn’t a healthy relationship. Now, if you are asked to give up your drug use, or your unhealthy habits, that is different. But if you are asked to give up your identity, if you are asked to suppress your wants, wishes and would-likes long term, the relationship probably isn’t healthy. There are some situations in which the relationship is so amazing in other ways that it doesn’t matter that you have to forgo or let go a part of your identity. It should be pretty darn amazing and have a lot of perks in other places to compensate for the requirement of suppressing who you are. Only you can decide if the relationship is worth losing part of who you are. It is rarely worth losing a core part of you, such as your spirituality, your sense of humor, your sensuality / sexuality or your body image. If you are OK with your body, but your partner wants it to be different (bigger breasts, better abs, better bottom, etc) then it is a good indication that your partner likes you for your body and not who you are. If you are the right person for them, and you are confident in your body, then your boobs shouldn’t matter. I personally would not give up my cat that I’ve had for 16 years for a relationship. She is important to me and a part of my identity. Again, only you can decide what part of you is worth sacrificing for someone else. And again, there had better be some darn good compensation for that sacrifice. In most cases, being asked to suppress or sacrifice who you are for your partner or your relationship means you aren’t with the right partner.
Illnesses and accidents throw curve balls at the person that goes through them. They also throw off the friends and partners. I’ve worked with clients that have partners that have had motorcycle accidents with traumatic brain injuries, degenerative diseases, even depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. When we marry we make a vow: In sickness and health. What happens when your partner gets in an accident that changes their personality, and they are no longer the person that you fell in love with? This happens in cases of brain injuries. It can also happen after a tragedy or when people are in great amounts of physical pain. There are resources for those with partners that are no longer able to take care of their basic needs that can help caregivers feel less overwhelmed. There are also support groups, both online and in person that help with feeling less alone. In most cases the partners and caregivers I work with stay with their partner. There are times though, in which leaving is a viable choice. If you are in danger, you are allowed to leave. If your partner has become someone that expects you to manage or tolerate behavior such as drug use or cheating, you are allowed to leave.
People that have been through abuse as a child can struggle to trust and bond as adults. This struggle affects loved ones because no matter how hard they try it can feel as though their love will never be enough. It can be a challenge living with someone that wants to feel close but has barriers and boundaries that have been put in place before you ever met them to keep them emotionally safe. Childhood trauma often includes betrayals by people that were supposed to protect them and they had to learn to live with that in order to survive. This can include keeping themselves from trusting. Being able to feel connected can be difficult. Because of the betrayals as children people with childhood traumas can be very sensitive to the possibility of betrayal as an adult, and this can lead to defensiveness in partnerships. This defensiveness can make partners feel very distanced and alone. They best way to be able to stay in such a relationship is to remember that their self-esteem and identity is not yours to fix. You are allowed to set boundaries with them, kindly, even if it hurts their feelings. You are allowed to take care of your own wishes, wants and would-likes. If ever you are not allowed to it isn’t a healthy place to be.
Relationships are hard work. They require patience, and understanding when your partner isn’t at their best. Relationships aren’t about bolting at the first sign of trouble. They also aren’t about losing who you are and sacrificing your identity to keep your partner happy or to keep the relationship happy. The lines between the hard work of making your relationship go and losing yourself are blurry. There are rarely easy answers. If you feel as though you are losing yourself the first thing to do is talk to your partner, without criticism, contempt or blaming. Talk to them about your wishes, wants and would-likes. Work with your partner to find a way to get your needs met as well. If it is unsafe for you to do so because of violence, or your partner just blatantly couldn’t give a rat’s ass about you or your needs it’s probably time to go. Remember, you never have to make the decision by yourself. Talk to a counselor about your needs, talk about your fears, and talk about how to get your needs met in a healthy way.