My 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
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