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Russell Collins: Breaking Out of an Unhappy Relationship

Ending the cycle of suffering can be the beginning to feeling more alive

I’ve even picked out the hat. Black. Wide brim. One of those Victorian ones you imagine they wear at Ascot. You could buy it online and have it in plenty of time. I would be sad, or at least downcast at the funeral — a bit of a tragic figure (laughs). I would say something — appropriate — at the graveside. Then I’d be free. Me and the kids. And the house, free and clear. I’m a terrible person, I know.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

Actually, no. I’d hesitate to call this a universal fantasy, but it’s a pretty common one. Unhappily married partners often create alternate realities where they can pursue new lives and new partners, free from the entanglements of the real one. They do this mostly because it’s easier and a lot less scary than either of the alternatives: addressing their serious dissatisfaction with the relationship, or leaving it behind.

The most alive couples I know have a paradoxical feature built into their connection; some aspect of each partner stays independent and operates autonomously, while another aspect stays firmly attached. This kind of connection can take years of subtle negotiation and struggle to arrive at, but in the end, there is understanding that two people don’t always fit easily together, or please each other, or be the partner they want each other to be. And while one part of me trusts you to be here when I need you, another part knows you can choose — me or not me — at any time. This makes me nervous, but it also makes our life together emotionally alive.

Because I work both with couples who are mediating a divorce and with couples trying in therapy to avoid one, I am often struck by the notion that there is slow corrosion in some relationships that is so destructive precisely because it has been so drawn out. People come to a marriage with an expectation about how they are going to be loved. When their partner fails to live up to these expectations, rather than either 1) negotiate for what they want, or 2) adjust their expectations, many people maintain their unfulfillable standards while nursing the pain of perennial disappointment. Instead of facing the tough conversations, they find fault and harbor resentments. They build a case against their partner in their head or with their friends. Eventually, they may fantasize about a funeral, and a painless, blame-free ending to the relationship.

Divorce mediator Sam Margulies describes this process as people giving up on marriages slowly, “one disappointment at a time.” If you could intervene early, he speculates, get people to express their differences and choose — me or not me; you or not you — even if the choice is to separate, wouldn’t that lead to happier outcomes than the long, slow drip of disenchantment? The longer the dance of leaving stretches out, the more anger there is. The more damage. If there is a divorce, the long-festering wounds can escalate conflict. And if there are children, the hostility can destroy them.

I was going to tell her Friday. I had a speech prepared, like, “There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk with you about.” She loves drinks out by the pool in summer, and I was going to let her knock down a couple, then tell her. I was going to stay at my brother’s house. They were expecting me. But we were sitting there, and suddenly she seemed so small and helpless, and I wondered — again — what would she do, how would she get by? Maybe I’m a coward. No, I am a coward, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger after all these years.

While the specter of leaving is frightening, most attempts to steer away from it just kick the can down the road. Leaving, like dying, is an ending, and like death, denial just makes it more confusing and demoralizing for everyone. But there is another, equally important reason for letting the cat of your serious unhappiness out of the bag early on.

In Uncoupling, her groundbreaking, description of the leaving process, sociologist Diane Vaughan describes the new possibilities that emerge during a breakup: “The two interact, perhaps with an intensity that has long been absent. This sudden intense exchange can remind the (unhappy one) of the other person’s good traits, and the ties that exist between them.”

“Sudden intensity” is the key phrase here, it seems to me. I see couples who open up about their deep unhappiness suddenly, intensely engaged in a way they may have never been before. The recognition that the game may be over, that this is it, injects a whole new level of urgency into a relationship that may have been suffocating from a lack of openness and candor.

I dreamed I was driving along a road at the crest of a range of mountains. Like a freeway under construction; a wide, straight expanse of gray pavement. On either side the road fell off into cliffs — terrifying craggy drops. As long as I steered straight in the middle, I felt safe. But then I’d notice the car wandering toward edge the edge. This would scare me, and I would jerk it back toward the middle.

Jennifer’s dream reflected many aspects of her life and career. As a metaphor for her relationship with Jack, though, her dream of the wide, gray road captured almost perfectly Jennifer’s experience of emotional safety and flatness in the relationship, surrounded by threatening emptiness on either side.

Jack and Jennifer were graduate students in their 20s living together. For years they had argued about the future. Jack was a straight-arrow scientist who wanted a life together, with kids. Jennifer resisted, complaining to friends how miserable she was, how controlling Jack was, how great it would be if she woke up one morning to find that he had somehow dissolved into the ether, leaving her free to get on with her life.

But she just couldn’t face the thought of leaving the relationship with all the conflict and complications that would bring. Jack’s hurt and anger. The judgment of friends who take sides. The logistics of moving out. The emptiness afterward. So Jennifer complained to Jack about his controlling behavior, and she complained to her friends, without ever quite admitting her desire to end it. Finally she decided to settle in with Jack until they got their degrees and took jobs at separate universities. It would be so much easier to wait for life to make the decision for her.

When people have been coupled for a long enough time, they can lose track of who they are apart, and it scares them to think of the alternative. Like rock climbers, they cling to the rope of togetherness at the expense of emotional aliveness. Breaking out of the relationship habit requires incredible courage. Essentially, it’s the willingness to drive off the edge, let go of the rope, risk destruction on the rocks below. Of course, there are no rocks, and no cliffs, and the landing, while painful, won’t be deadly. This is the discovery that frees you. As one door closes, another one will open, as they say. 

Leaving the silent suffering of an unhappy relationship is a door to the frightening unknown. Whether it leads to more emotional aliveness with a current partner, or the terrifying excitement of new possibilities alone, taking the leap into authenticity will not kill you; it will leave you more alive.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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