7 Questions to Consider When You’re Stuck in a Relationship That Hurts

Couple dressed in light jackets stand outside at night at distance from blurred lit building, facing away from each other, looking downMy last article, Why We Stay in Relationships That Hurt, examined why some people get stuck (or choose to stay) in painful relationships. Since the topic resonated with many readers, I am doing a follow-up.

Once you acknowledge you’re in a relationship that chronically hurts, what’s next? “Knowing” is great, but figuring out what to do and what choices you have is a different discussion.

You may have addressed it head-on, tiptoed around “doing something,” or avoided the difficult choice to approach your partner about your feelings. Ask yourself: Have you been assertive, spoken up to your partner, asked them to change their hurtful behavior? If you haven’t: What holds you back? What are the roadblocks? Some people suppress their resentment. Some fear creating more conflict. Others worry they’ll run up against a stone wall.

If you have spoken up: Are your thoughts and feelings heard or denied? Do your conversations leave you feeling validated or unheard and alone? Have you proposed getting help or going to couples counseling? Are your efforts to improve the relationship rebuffed? Ask yourself if you are the only one suffering. Maybe your partner is content with the state of the relationship.

Here’s the bottom line: You can change only your thoughts, your words, your actions. If your partner agrees to work on it and/or seek counseling, there is hope to move toward creating a healthier, more fulfilling relationship. If not, reflect on the obstacles that keep you stuck.

Be curious. Start asking yourself the difficult questions. Embrace the fear. Explore your thoughts and feelings. The goal is to gain more insight about your resistance to face what’s happening. Here are seven questions that may help you dive deeper and explore the emotions behind staying in a hurtful relationship:

1. What am I afraid will happen if I leave?

Many of us fear the unknown. The known, even if it’s bad, is at least familiar. It’s said, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”

2. What am I afraid will happen if I stay?

This is a question we may avoid. Even when there is consistent evidence your partner will not engage in relationship work, some of us cling to false hope and remain in denial. Ask yourself honestly: Do you see any concrete evidence your partner has the desire to change the relationship? If not, what will happen if you stay?

Therapists are there to provide a safe space for you. We can support you in figuring out how to approach your partner and help you explore your options.

3. What is my deal-breaker and why?

We all have a bottom line. For instance, “I would definitely leave if (he hit me/he was verbally abusive/he wouldn’t stop seeing the other woman).” What is the most hurt you are willing to accept?

4. What would my life look like if I left?

This is the scariest question yet. It’s overwhelming to think about leaving, so we push it away. We don’t even consider it. The amount of change you face when you leave a marriage or long-term relationship, especially with kids, is vast. Many people get stuck on the very thought of leaving and stop in their tracks. Remember, thinking about it and creating a vision of what life would be like doesn’t mean you must carry out the plan. Allow yourself to imagine what it could look like in a year, five years, 20 years.

5. Who would support me?

We all need a support network in times of crisis. Who would be there for you emotionally, physically, financially? You may at first think no one, yet when people experience major change, supportive friends and family tend to come around. Especially ones who have been through something similar. And there’s always a therapist you could reach out to.

6. Do I feel deserving of a healthier relationship?

Here’s where you go back to asking yourself: Why have you stayed in this hurtful relationship? What is it in your past that you are playing out or repeating? Whose voice is telling you, “You must stay” or “This is all you deserve” or “You won’t be able to survive”? Talk back to that voice and develop the part of yourself that believes you deserve more.

7. What if I’m alone?

Many people have a fear of being alone. Connecting with others is part of being human. We are social creatures. If you leave, you will likely spend more time alone. Ask yourself: And then what? If you had more time alone, what would you do with that time? If you had to pick a hobby or an interest, what would it be? What haven’t you been able to pursue because you’ve spent so much time and energy in a hurtful relationship? Many communities offer support groups and meet-up groups for newly separated people.

When you allow fear to hold you back, you create isolation, emptiness, and loneliness—the very feelings you are trying to avoid by confronting your partner or leaving. It’s only when you face fear that new doors can open.

It’s difficult to explore these questions alone. If you are stuck in a painful relationship, reach out for help. Therapists are there to provide a safe space for you. We can support you in figuring out how to approach your partner and help you explore your options. You are not alone.

“Courage is not doing something without fear; courage is being afraid but doing it anyway.” —Harriet J. Wilder

“A bad relationship is like standing on broken glass. If you stay, you will keep hurting. If you walk away, you will hurt but eventually you will heal.” —Autumn Kohler

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lori Hollander LCSW-C, BCD, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Angie

    July 10th, 2017 at 11:16 AM

    For many women especially I think that we get locked in because we allow ourselves to become too financially dependent on these other people that we allow in our lives. Being financially independent alleviates some of that pressure that might you have to stay in a relationship that may not be working for you.

  • Lori Hollander

    July 10th, 2017 at 11:53 AM

    Angie, You are absolutely right. It’s tough when women have stayed home to raise their kids and then feel trapped in a painful marriage. Thanks for your comment. Lori

  • Gabe

    December 30th, 2019 at 2:21 PM

    Sometimes it is the husband who stays because the wife is not willing to change, not able to work, and enjoys the benefits of care at every level. Did you ever stop and think about that? Have you considered what caregivers who are the husband go through? My point: There are wives who enjoy remaining dependent on their husband regardless of the emotional toll care giving has on the husband.

  • Sallie

    July 10th, 2017 at 4:29 PM

    I guess I have always thought that if I have to make a pros and cons list about someone then they are probably not worth the time and effort.

    I mean there shouldn’t ever even be that question you know? If they are right for you then you know it, and I think that the same exact thing goes for if they are wrong for you. You know it.

  • Lori Hollander

    July 12th, 2017 at 7:38 AM

    Sallie, If only it was that simple…In a healthy relationship there are pros and cons. The question is…Are the cons “deal-breakers?” Are there many more positive things about the relationship that make it worthwhile dealing with the negatives? And is your partner willing to work through the “cons” with you as a team? In a chronically hurtful, emotionally abusive relationship, the cons are deal-breakers, there are more significant negatives than positives, and your partner can’t or won’t work through the issues together. Thanks for your comment! Lori

  • Gabe

    December 30th, 2019 at 2:27 PM

    I believe taking a measure of what would a con be against a pro be. If not done, we would then enter into a relationship blindly. It is hard enough facing the reality that we all change, and we still will, from circumstances demanding a change to a change of personal purpose or re-defining a personal purpose. Not having a pro and con, to me, is a very important starting point. Some take it to extremes and make lists of what “their mr. or mrs. right must be”. I keep it simpler: Is there spiritual agreement in purpose? Is there physical attraction? Is there an emotional connection? Just sharing my thoughts.

  • Eve

    July 11th, 2017 at 7:57 AM

    If you can ever find that courage to leave then I promise that your life will look so much better

  • Lori Hollander

    July 12th, 2017 at 7:39 AM

    Eve, Sounds like you’ve been there. Thanks for your encouragement. Lori

  • Perrin

    July 13th, 2017 at 1:05 PM

    There will eventually come a time where you can honestly look at your life and say is this person making me a better person and do I have a better life because of being with him or her? When you have the answers to those questions then I think that you will have found those ultimate answers that you are looking for.

  • Lori Hollander

    July 13th, 2017 at 3:45 PM

    Perrin, I love the way you put it! Thanks so much for sharing your comment. Lori

  • Perrin

    July 17th, 2017 at 2:12 PM

    No problem… I have a touch of experience in this area ;)

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