I’ve been asked countless times, “How do I know if I should stay or leave a complicated relationship?”
It’s such a vulnerable question, and one that is best to ask (and explore) before leaving the relationship to prevent regret.
It’s one that presents feelings of anxiety and confusion, alongside a desire to make the best decision or avoid making a regrettable one. We can easily imagine vacillating between positive relationship experiences and difficult ones, and then it feels like making up an answer to a long-division problem.
Let’s first break the sentence down into three parts.
Part I - “How do I know”
Part II - “stay or leave”
Part II - “a complicated relationship”
Not knowing can lead to serious discomfort at times with a worry of never getting an answer. Feeling helpless can follow, and if the slope is slippery then what happens next could be lashing out in anger, dissociating and drifting off into a work project, plunging into addictive behaviors like drugs/alcohol/sugar/porn/social media, or some spiritual bypass.
Let’s not and say we did.
Instead, begin by noticing the noisy mind that spins tales of self-blame. It may likely say “I’m supposed to know; it’s not okay to not have the answers; don’t be caught without being fully prepared; a real man/woman doesn’t get lost.”
If you do say this to yourself, ask yourself “where did I learn this from? Whose voice does this remind me of? Was I ever ridiculed for not knowing an answer? Or, today how are those with all the right answers treated?” Asking these questions is sort of like panning for gold. Here we’re hoping to separate our inner wisdom from the outdated blame-training. If we’re successful we arrive at loving self-acceptance for not having our next best move sorted out.
Now that we’re slightly less contracted because we’re not forcing ourselves to have a clear answer, we can more successfully explore all our feelings and needs in the situation. Now this self-talk may now sound like, “I’m tired and overwhelmed with heartache, and I crave some harmony and ease with my partner. I don’t know what to do right now and this is hard. Truthfully, I notice I’m scared and sad too.”
“Stay or leave.” When quizzed about our greatest fears, being alone lands on top. A core human need is connection and this commonly shows up as companionship and friendship. Though we instinctively know this, the neuroscience data proves that we are wired to connect with others, so it’s natural to fear being alone, although it’s highly unlikely. Meanwhile, a good question to ask is, “where do we have additional opportunities for connection in other areas of our life?”
A false dilemma is a fallacy in which something is claimed to be an "either/or" situation, when in fact there is at least one additional option. Equally as interesting is that a false dilemma can arise when attempting to force a choice or outcome. Are staying or leaving our only options? We may force out creative solutions when asking the question this way.
“A Complicated relationship.” I wonder if they’re secretly saying “my partner is complicated.” The speaker is likely judging both themselves and their partner, and this judgment of their partner is the root cause of the relationship breakdown. The gold can only be found if our eyes are wide open, so our sights mustn't be restricted by the inherent limitation of judgments.
Again, it’s imperative to sort through old limiting beliefs to see if any are running the show. There are many myths about the complexity of relationships such as “relationships shouldn’t be hard work” or “if I can’t tell right away then it’s probably not the right relationship.”
When I hear “complicated,” I imagine this person wants kindness and ease when communicating with their partner, and needs support in understanding what’s been going on for so long.
The answer to this person’s question is quite simple:
I don’t know when to leave but I surely know when not to. You’re not ready for departure before you’re certain that you’ve heard your partner fully in the way they want to be heard, and vice versa. This is very different from saying all that you want to say.
We can only fully understand the whole relationship once we’ve truly listened to ourselves and the other person. This takes time, commitment, skills, patience, and vulnerability. We must be clear about all our feelings, needs, and requests before making a big decision. When we take into account someone’s sensitivities, proclivities, and their past hurts before we met them, we can listen with unique ears. Plus, we’re less likely to see them as complicated and instead as products of their real life experiences. Listening is a meditation.
This communication nerd just broke down a one-sentence question, and you don’t have to.
When our relationships appear “complicated” and we don’t know which way is up, the truth is that it’s an opportunity for us to slow down, get curious about our needs, as well as those of our partners, before taking any steps we may regret in the future.