It’s a great time of year for reflecting on what works well in your life and what doesn’t. What to continue, or quit doing? Some things seem obvious—addictive drinking, smoking, and eating are all bad for your health, so it would be good to quit. It’s just hard to do. At least you can know that–eventually—you’ll feel proud of yourself. You’ll join with other people who can say yes, I used to do that but I don’t any more. And you’ll be free from the shame of being drunk/polluting the air/damaging your body. There’s a long road to recovery from addictions, but it’s pretty clear that the outcome will be good for you and for those around you.
But it’s not so clear when your pain is about an unhappy marriage/relationship. Are you really going to feel proud of yourself for giving up stability, security, and familiarity? Or are you just going to feel guilty about hurting another person, and lonely, needy, ashamed to be single again? And resenting the economic impact of un-coupling? This is a lot to lean into!
We hear so much that “Relationships are hard work!” And, in our lesbian world, I think we revere longevity. We take “for better or worse” very seriously, even when it’s mostly worse. We act like staying thirty years in a bad relationship is better than quitting after ten. It’s true that a good relationship is worth your absolute best energy and attention. But some relationships are just too painful, and it really would be smarter to quit. But how?
It takes courage, and a reality check. You need to muster the courage to ask yourself some hard questions: How well is this relationship working? Am I making my best effort to improve things, or am I just blaming her for my unhappiness? How honest have I been with her, and how has she responded? Have both of us made a sincere effort to re-connect? How much reciprocity is there between us? How long has this been going on, and how many times have we really tried to make it better?
Those questions are scary, because you may not like the answers. Sometimes you realize that you’ve been simmering silently, not expressing your feelings and resenting her for not reading your mind. Other times you realize that you’ve expressed your feelings many times, to no avail. It’s harder to deny reality when you’re facing it directly.
I asked several people what made them finally quit an addictive pattern. Each of them mentioned hearing a voice—not a hallucination, but a crystal clear phrase that popped into mind and summed it all up. One woman said she was huddled on her balcony in a freezing rain, shivering and coughing as she lit her cigarette, when her inner voice said “This is stupid!” Another woke up in a strange place after a night of heavy drinking, disoriented and bedraggled and scared, and heard “This is dangerous.” For a third, it was stepping on the scales in her doctor’s office and realizing “This isn’t a way to live.” These were the turning points that came after years of knowing “I should quit this.”
Reality checks are more complicated with relationships. It just isn’t as obvious when a relationship is self-destructive and when it’s just “going through a rough patch.” Furthermore, relationships involve two different people, and what works for one may not work for the other. Substance abuse or financial irresponsibility can hurt one partner much more than the other, so there are different motivations to stay committed. Sometimes there are defining moments—a drunken episode, an episode of infidelity—that precipitate the decision to quit a relationship. More often, however, women talk about long, slow, depressing declines in emotional and physical intimacy, and years of wondering if they want to stay or go. Until something exciting happens.
Probably a majority of lesbian breakups are precipitated by the arrival of a new romantic interest—not necessarily an active affair, but at least an attraction with someone new. There’s a sense of possibilities, a stirred-up, deep-down hope that someone is interested, a reminder that there may be attractive alternatives to your current situation. All of this, of course, seems unfaithful and shallow—but it is human nature.
Lining up a new relationship while you’re still in the old one is a risky proposition, because your judgment is impaired by the fact that you’re not really single. As I’ve heard many times, “I went from one relationship into another, and now I think I should have waited. I should have taken more time by myself…”
It’s hard to be alone. The longing to mate is primitive and intense, and fear of being left out in the cold can keep us paralyzed for a long time. Not to mention the shame of being alone, unattached, unwanted. And then, just to pile it on, you can feel bad about feeling bad, telling yourself that it’s somehow healthier to be strong, independent, and self-sufficient. This appeals to me as much as sitting alone in a quiet, dark room with nothing to do. Not so much.
What does appeal to me is courage. It takes courage to take risks, let go of destructive bonds, and reach out for healthy connections. Every step in development—from crawling to walking, living with parents to moving away, graduating from school to going to work—involves letting go of something familiar and trying something new. And coming out—what a courageous trek that’s been for so many of us!
The good thing about courage is that we all have it, and we can grow more. There are many small, courageous steps before you make a final decision about leaving or staying. You can talk to your partner, or to your friends, or to a therapist, about your unfulfilled dreams. You can do more things you enjoy, and build on strengths you already know you have. You can broaden your social networks, and learn more about living as an individual, not just as a partnered person. These are courage-building exercises that can only help, regardless of what you decide to do about your relationship.
What to continue, and what to quit? It’s such a process, figuring out what expands your life and deepens your loving relationships. And always, it seems to start with claiming your courage.
Glenda Corwin, Ph.D is a clinical psychologist who specializes in lesbian sexual issues. She is the author of Sexual Intimacy for Women: A Guide for Same Sex Couples (Seal Press, 2010). Dr. Corwin writes for the Huffington Post: Gay Voices, Epochalips.com, as well as her own blog on www.DrGlendaCorwin.com. She presents frequently at professional conferences, and is a regular guest on Barb Elgin’s LesbianLoveTalk radio program.