“When to End it, When to Stay” is the phrase that summarizes the dilemma that many individuals and couples face after living through years of a relationship that clearly is not working. Some couples find themselves with tremendous silence and distance between them. Others often find themselves regularly in each other’s faces. Either way, too frequently individuals within a relationship know that something has to change, but they are not sure what that change looks like. Will s/he ever finally live up to the potential that you thought he would? Will s/he finally accept me the way I am? Would a crystal ball see them together or apart? And, how do you know what the right choice is for you especially when there is so much shared history together. Isn’t there a perfect relationship workshop, a magical couple’s therapist, or the right romantic vacation that will reignite the spark that was there at the beginning? After all, the passion and friendship was once there, but perhaps it has slipped away while you’ve been busy raising children, changing careers, following spiritual callings or living through painful experiences of loss or betrayal that may have changed the bedrock of your relationship.
This back and forth questioning of not knowing how one should proceed is a dilemma that affects most relationships at some point in time. At some point most couples wonder what needs to change in order tore-establish joy and connection in their relationship. In a society where divorce is commonplace and relationship dissatisfaction is rampant, clearly something is not working in this critical arena that should be a source of safety and nurturance. While there is no one path or no correct answer that will be right for all couples, it is not up to other family members or friends to say what the fate of any one couple should be. No one outside of the two people can know all the details of another’s relationship. No one else can know for sure what is right for you. Only you have the final say. Finding a way to know what your inner self needs is a journey that is worth taking.
It has been our experience that there are some steps that can facilitate this journey that can be fraught with pitfalls of emotions that may include frustration, anger, guilt, shame, disappointment, betrayal and much more. Amidst these intense feelings, clear thinking is not always easy. The willingness to live with disappointment and pain can last for years if not decades. People put up with unhappy marriages for many reasons, for the children, for financial security, for fear of being alone are but a few. The suffering that stems from relationship disconnection and a stalemate state of “should I leave or shouldn’t I” has a significant impact on the physical and emotional well-being of both people in the relationship and can have an even greater impact on the lives of any children living amidst the silent or expressed pain. It is our contention that remaining for a prolonged period of time in the indecision of “staying” vs. “leaving” is a destructive choice that often does harm to a person’s self esteem as well as too each other.
While our current feelings of being hurt and disappointed and let down may dominate our attention, it is important to learn how to step back and see how our current state of mind and hearts may be influenced not only by the person in front of us, but also how the present feelings are influenced by subconscious connections that we are not aware of that may be influencing the current situation.
Our brains learn primarily through the law of association. This is both good and bad news. The good news is that by shedding light on the subconscious associations you may have created between your current relationship distress and past experiences, you may find powerful keys for releasing pent up resentment and anger and for finding real forgiveness that heals. Acknowledging these subconscious connections may also allow you to hear your inner voice that empowers you to make the choice that you need for starting anew. The bad news is that these associations to the past are often well hidden and not always obvious.
There are different processes available for finding these subconscious connections and for helping us to gain insight into why certain behaviors trigger us more easily than others. We find one technique in particular to be very useful in uncovering those dysfunctional patterns. It is known as the Emotional Freedom Techniques, or EFT. These techniques can be quick and effective for uncovering the hidden reasons for choices we make that we may not be aware of. Examples of such patterns include repeatedly choosing partners that disrespect you, continually hooking up with untrustworthy mates or time after time selecting romantic relationships that are sexually unfulfilling. As they say, the only thing common to all the relationships you have, is you.
Neuroscience research demonstrates how our brain wires together experiences and memories that may not be related in time, though they have something in common. Memories of betrayal or hurtful relationship arguments can anchor themselves in our brains with much greater power than other experiences because experiences that are tied to strong emotions are notched stronger into our brains. That’s important because our current relationship therefore does not exist by itself, it is synaptically wired to past intimate relationships, to childhood memories and other experiences that made us feel the same way. Feeling helpless about not being able to have your partner treat you with kindness? Just look to past times in your life that others treated you with judgment and disrespect and you will begin to see how your current sense of helplessness is just the tip of the emotional iceberg. Current memory research continues to advance our understanding on how similar experiences, especially emotionally charged ones, can be re-triggered by even remotely distant but similar events. So if you wonder why a “joking” comment about your appearance can make you enraged, or how a sideways glance can drain all your energy from your body, you can often look to painful experiences from your past to trace back to your current strong emotional response. It’s as if each painful experience that are thematically connected stack themselves higher and higher until a collapse becomes inevitable.
Using EFT, one can quickly find the origins of lifelong repetitive relationship patterns. Often they begin very early in life, even long before the idea of romance is in ones life. While one may never think that when they get irritated and angry at their spouse, the origin may well have begun back when they observed their father treating their mother poorly. It just seems so long ago and disconnected. However, during an EFT session, the same neural pathway that gets activated in both the current situation and the buried original memory is healed. This is accomplished by physically stimulating meridian acupuncture endpoints by gentle tapping instead of inserting needles. The physiological effect of this is a reduction in stress hormones to the point where the triggering events no longer bother you. It’s as if our minds recapitulate a situation over and over again, throughout our lives in a futile attempt to create a sense of completion. EFT resolves those hamster-wheel like attempts.
It is helpful to find the first memory you have of feeling the way you do about your relationship and work with that. For example, if you are feeling like you were set up, as if your spouse made you think that they were one way but over time you found out that they really weren’t that way (be it attentive, affectionate, etc.) look to the first time that you felt lied to or that someone close to you was disingenuous about their intentions. It may have been a trusted friend, a boyfriend who wanted more than he was willing to say, a relative who said they were being generous but was really being selfish. These original events, sometimes were traumatic in a major way but also may not have been thought of that way, especially if it occurred during childhood. From birth until about age seven years old, it has been said that we live in a hypnogogic state. This is a brainwave state where what we experience and learn becomes significantly hardwired in our brains. Our amygdala and hippocampus are the brain’s sentinel and repository for emotionally charged alarm signals and memories; especially with regards feeling safe, secure and nurtured. As an adult, we may not consider an angry red faced person telling us that we are always wrong or are stupid to be life threatening, but as a child we may feel just that. Once that memory is wired in our emotional memory banks, any time someone, like our partner, gets frustrated or angry to the point of physically being scarlet-faced, all the self defense mechanisms that may have been learned and acquired through one’s lifetime, may engage immediately; even before the rational neocortex part of one’s brain can actualize and generate understanding or empathy.
We often don’t look to our childhoods for the keys of why we act the way we do in intimate adult relationships, but often there are jewels of insights lying there to be picked up and revealed. Childhood experiences of being told by a parent or teacher that you weren’t smart enough, pretty enough, or that you were too fat, a slow learner, or a liar, all potentially lay down land mines that may be re-triggered in future vulnerable relationship episodes. Early adolescent and teenage experiences involving the development of self-image beliefs especially regarding ones physical body and early sexual exploration experiences are powerful territory for initial beliefs and decisions about what intimacy should or should not look like. These significant emotional experiences may very well become what we refer to as Core Beliefs. Core Beliefs are the primary directives we created based upon our interpretation of our early life experiences and they tend to rule our lives. Examples of these may look like: You can’t really ever trust people. I’m not loveable. Eventually those you love will leave you. I’m not worthy. The world isn’t safe. I will never get what I need.
When uncovering these core personal belief statements, the use of words like everyone, always and eventually are generalizations that reinforce the solidity and absoluteness of these beliefs; No one can really be trusted, people are always selfish, etc. These can have a powerful influence on how you see your partner when you hear yourself saying; He is always late, she never remembers how I like the toilet paper hung. These core beliefs lie beneath our relationships and are the way we observe our world, though usually uncsonsciously. When our current partner shows up in our brains looking or sounding like the father that always forgot mom’s birthday or the first girlfriend that was promiscuous or the first husband that promised family was the highest priority when it wasn’t, the combination of the present and the past emerge as a powerful force that seems to be targeted at you and more than you can reasonably stand.
Past traumas and past disappointments that result in our core beliefs are critically important to unearth but there are other drivers that influence how satisfied we are in our relationships. Many of our ideas about what relationships should look like formed early in our lives. These early ideals and preferences often came from image makers that had profound impacts on our brains. The love and marriage department of our neocortex are filled with stories of happily ever after and of princes on white horses. Scores of movies have utilized the power of the Cinderella story (think Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere) with the knight on a white horse coming to sweep the maiden off her feet and carry her into the sunset. But our earliest concepts of what a relationship should be like come from our parents, grandparents and perhaps extended family. Unfortunately it is the rare parent that has instructed their child about the reality of relationship expectations, how to handle relationship disappointment, forgiveness, compromise, non-violent communication skills, child-rearing, cooperative goal planning, financial cooperation, etc.
After childhood, the primary image shift and become peers and media. During pre-pubescence and adolescence, research shows these sources become the predominant instructors in relationship advice. A research study found that 73% of top forty music songs had love and romance as their central theme. A 1996 study showed that 90% of teens look to movies, while 94% turn to television for information about love. Only 33% of teens turn to their mother and 17% to their fathers. A study by Tanner in 2003 reviewed 26 animated Disney films and the single major theme of the movie was “Love at First Sight” with eighteen of the twenty six movies having couples falling in love within minutes, then getting married and of course living happily ever after. Another study in 1995 reviewed the 15 most viewed movies by teens and all had a major theme with the notion that “love just happens” and that somehow you just end up married. These studies and others point to the unrealistic relationship concepts such as the expectation of mind-reading, that notion that love just somehow happens, that any disagreements are destructive and that of course physical attraction and sex is the primary reason for “hooking up” with a partner.
After adolescence, one can hope that relationship maturity begins, but that would be optimistic. The Rating/Dating Complex refers to the observed late adolescent and early adult dating years; especially during the college age time period. During this time of life, research has shown that students in relationships expressed more concern about the social status of their dating partner than how the person made them feel and of primary importance was the status it conferred to them by being with them. Marriages, especially when entered into at young ages, often involve naïveté and innocence as to what will be necessary in order to make a long term marriage really succeed. While trends in the United States are showing the average age for marriage to be climbing, 28 for a man and 26 for a woman (In Great Britain the average woman is now 30 years old), divorce rates still remain in the 50% range.
Ultimately, any relationship is a complex joining of two individuals that combines multifaceted entanglements of experiences, memories and emotions with the hope that each person can be seen and fully accepted for whom they are and how they act. This is not always easy. Finding oneself after years, or decades, with a partner with whom you no longer find yourself content is a critical issue that leads us back to where we started – should I stay or should I go?
By finding a way to understand why situations show up as repetitive in ones life, by gaining insight into why someone gets triggered so easily especially over small events, one can begin to gain understanding that sometimes when it seems the problem is the other person, it often is not. Finding ways to explore the connections between painful events and their relationship to the current relationship dissatisfaction, is critical for clearing the way to make the best decision for how you need to move forward when you find yourself in the middle of “I have to find a way to leave this marriage” or “how will I ever make this relationship like the way it once was again?” Uncovering the relationship between your past and your present can clear the way to either forgive and re-connect in a loving new way or establish a clear resoluteness to begin anew with clarity and completion.
Alina Frank and Craig Weiner are the creators of When to End It, When to Stay (www.WhenToEndIt.com) and Path2Passion (www.Path2Passion.net). They are instructors of the Emotional Freedom Techniques (www.tapyourpower.net) and are happily divorced and currently madly in married love.