Leaving relationships rather than working on them
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 26, 2019
The world has changed. Stability has been shaken. We jump from opportunity to opportunity in employment, housing and interests. We shouldn't also run from stable relationships.
Our highly stimulated world is jammed with mental intrigue, starkly contrasting the stable calmness of past generations. The innovation of the computer changed the experience of living with instant updates and billions of messages fighting for a sliver of our attention. Modern businesses have adjusted to the fast pace by trying to keep employees engaged before losing them to the next sparkling opportunity. As people change, internal stability is a premium quality when external stability is lacking. How do these changes impact relationships? Will life-long bonds become relics of the past? I don’t know. But secure attachment is fundamental to modern well-being. Any environment that destroys attachments will also damage well-being. We must proceed with caution.
Current divorce statistics don’t indicate any alarming change (they actually have dropped over the last two decades). However, marriage rates have also dipped as millennials wait until later in life to marry. Divorce is still common with over 40% of first-time marriages failing.
We have long abandoned the traditional family unit common in the mid 1900’s, where divorces were frowned upon, and legally difficult to obtain. This doesn’t mean all marriages were happy. Many people lived together in agony—because that’s what you did. Our nostalgic views of Disney happily-ever-after relationships are distorted.
Many dysfunctional parents from that time period gave unintentional gifts of chaotic attachment to their children. Disconnected moms and dads raised disconnected children. The children often felt that something was wrong but didn’t know how to fix the problem, so they continued carrying the family torch, giving the gift of broken attachment skills to their children.
Many dysfunctional parents from that period gave unintentional gifts of chaotic attachment to their children.
The truth is relationships are difficult. Happy couples still require work, sacrifice and even some suffering. We propagate a lie of fairy-tale connections. It is a beautiful lie. We grasp the visions of an eventual paradise where insecurities vanish, and unconditional love flourishes. We believe the fairy-tale because we have been gifted occasional glimpses into the elated and magical feelings of love, even for a moment, where troubles disappear, and joys are magnified.
We readily and repeatedly jump into the commitment fray, ignoring warning signs and defying the differences with our “love-conquers-all” dreams, only to discover our mental resources do not match the relationship demands. The fast-life attitude pushes us to move on instead of repair, seeking healing through fruitless searches.
"Love isn’t just hearts, rainbow, soft pinks and reds, it is more like fireworks – thrilling, aggressive, surprising and frightening."
The psychological sound advice is to learn, grow and develop the skills to maintain and benefit from a secure attachment. The evidence is clear—there is a positive correlation between secure attachments and well-being. Seventeenth-century philosopher Francis Bacon said that intimate relationships “redoubleth joys, and cutteth griefs in half.” (Ben-Shahar, 2007 pg. 112)
We need to fight the fairy-tale lie. Romance unfettered with worries is attractive, tickling our idealistic fantasies, but this doesn’t match reality. Real love takes work—lots of it. Managing our emotional stability is a chore, requiring skill and maturity. In a relationship, the stability is complicated by the complexities of two living, breathing, reactionary creatures. Conflict is inevitable. The strength and success of a relationship depends on a couple’s ability to manage these conflicts, working through the ebb and flow of feelings.
Skilled partners soothe the emotions while inexperienced lovers magnify the feelings and poke the sensitivities. Contrary to our dreams, many relationships heighten insecurities rather than solve them.
"The good news is that we can still learn new dance steps as adults. But...you have to face your fear of commitment. At first, this means nothing more than: endure. To not run away. To resist the impulse to escape."
People bring baggage into the relationship. We have pasts and those pasts intrude on the present. Our histories cannot be discarded or easily integrated. Therapy patients spend years learning to understand how their personal histories impact their lives, in relationships this work is compounded.
Even the best relationships involve moments of intense love and frightening indifference, connection and disconnection, attunement and misattunement, feelings of importance and the emptiness of being ignored.
If we burden relationships with expectations of perfection, believing unconditional love will eliminate the necessary work, we will be disappointed. We must either deny and bury, seek fulfillment elsewhere or courageously face reality and learn to commit, resolve and connect. Like the title of Aaron Beck’s classic work, “Love is Never Enough.” (1989)
Unfortunately, children are often involved. The decision to stay, leave or improve is complicated by the growing web of impact. We can become part of the multi-generational chain of dysfunction, passing our incompleteness to the kids that absorb everything we do, or we can break the chain and invite something new and better into their lives.
Perhaps, the next few decades will continue the downward divorce trends will continue, and marriages will stabilize as a growing number of lovers learn the messy requirements for happy bonds. And then again, maybe not. The world will do what the world will do. We live in a crazy time with ever-shifting demands. Hopefully, we can break our dysfunctional chains, find enjoyment in connection and provide loving attunement and secure attachment to the children that desperately need these skills without the driving need to discard relationships that fall short, failing to serve our inflated expectations and impractical needs of perfection.
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Beck, A. (1989) Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstandings, Resolve Conflicts, and Solve Relationship Problems Through Cognitive Therapy. Harper Perennial; Reprint edition
Ben-Shahar, B. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Education; 1st edition