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What's Keeping Me in a Dying Relationship?

When attachments prolong suffering.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

By the time couples come to me for help, they have often tried hard on their own to make their relationship work. But, despite those efforts, they are still struggling with the same seemingly unresolvable issues. Worn out and weary from too many failed attempts, they are running out of faith that they can stay in the relationship any longer.

Some are still in love and are just not yet ready to give up, but the negatives are mounting and they are not healing the way they were once able to. They still are desperately hoping that there is something they could still do to reclaim their love and don’t want to lose each other.

Many of these exhausted and wary relationship warriors have already sought professionals for help. Others have tried separating for a while, hoping that time away from one another could rejuvenate their love. A large number of them have made significant attempts to educate themselves on what might be wrong and how they can fix it. They’ve read multiple books on relationships, gone to seminars, relied on the advice of family and friends, and pled, raged, cried, and sacrificed to get things back on track.

But still, the old issues continue to emerge without resolution, leaving too many scars on their relationship landscape. They realize that they should let the relationship go, but feel immobilized in the ability to make that happen.

  • I know I need to leave, but I find myself unable to.

  • I’ve lost faith we could ever find a way to make this work.

  • I’m so discouraged and worn out. I know my partner is, too.

  • I just don’t know what to do anymore.

  • I’ll always love my partner in some way forever, but I just don’t think I can live with him/her anymore.

  • Why can’t I just walk away?

  • What is wrong with me that I continue to keep hurting and being hurt without the guts to move on?

These anguished and entrapped relationship partners are not weak, neurotic, or inadequate people. Any of us could, or have, found ourselves in these kinds of seemingly unresolvable predicaments. Leaving a relationship too soon, or staying in one too long is probably more common for most people than finding the right person and making a great relationship work. Yet, for those who are caught up in these relationships eternally conflicting mazes, it is only human to keep trying if even a flicker of hope remains, even if they should let each other go.

Several years ago, I wrote a post for Psychology Today called, “When It’s Time to Let a Relationship Go.” Many people responded. They unilaterally agreed that they knew their relationships should end but were unable to let go. Some, armed with better understanding, were finally able to end them. But many others, even newly armed with everything they needed to know in order to move on, still found themselves unable to break away.

Why good people continue to do hurtful things to each other is not about immaturity or bad intentions. It’s much more about relationship attachments, the enmeshing of conflicting needs that can create confusion and ongoing distress. Attachments are the emotionally rational and irrational, bonds we form with the people we love. They can run very deep and hold partners entrapped in relationships that are no longer working.

I’m writing this companion post to “When It’s Time to Let a Relationship Go” to help those of you who now know that it’s the right decision to end your relationship, have not been able to do that, and are searching for help. As you understand what those attachment bonds are between you, you may be able to develop the courage to let go.

As you read the following most common reasons that people cannot leave a withering relationship, please do not judge yourself or your partner. These failing are human and what is most important is that you learn from your love mistakes and do better in the future.

The Eight Most Common Reasons People Stay in Relationships They Know They Should Leave

1. Fear of Failure

Everyone is affected by the way others feel about them, including what they have internalized from their past experiences. We thrive when the people we care about love, value, and respect us, and feel like disappointments when they find fault.

Most people enter committed relationships with the absolute faith that not only their love will hold, but that many others believe the same way about them. Weddings are not as much for the bride and groom, as they are for those watching to renew their own belief in love.

Those family members, friends, work buddies, and religious leaders have opinions and behaviors that show when they are sad or disappointed that a relationship that they believed in didn’t make it. Those responses affect the couple who ends that partnership. That is especially true when the ending relationship follows others that have failed. Those who have had several past relationships that have not worked out fear being negatively labeled as “non-relationship material.”

2. Demolished Lifestyles

When two people have formed a partnership, it is often more than just emotional. There may be financial, spiritual, social, familial, and mutual dreams now denied. A partnership usually offers more than dependable companionship. It offers a full lifestyle that changes dramatically when that partnership ends.

This is particularly problematic when one partner has become dependent on the other to make that lifestyle functional. There may be ties everywhere; children, social groups, connection to the other partner’s family members, investments in financial endeavors, and membership in the same church, are bound to be severely different when the couple is no longer together.

Depending on the reasons, others see the relationship ending, trusted and loyal supporters of the union may take sides with one or the other partner. If either is connected to another long-term relationship, resources often have to be reallocated and more hardship can happen as a result.

3. Self-Doubts

When a committed relationship ends, one or both partners often have serious self -doubts as to what he or she may have done wrong. That is especially true if past relationship failures have had a pattern.

As single people reentering the dating scene, they often wonder if they still have what it takes to have a decent chance of meeting someone of quality. So often, people give up what they truly liked about themselves in order to please their partners, and have lost faith in who they truly are and what they have to offer. They wonder if it was their fault, whether they should have tried harder, or could they have done something differently.

Grief has three components. The first is just missing that person who has symbolically died. The level of that grief is totally dependent on how intensely the interaction was before the person left. The second part of grief is the part of each person who “dies” with the relationship. For example, he or she will never send Valentine’s card to that person again. The role of a lover in a particular relationship “dies” when the relationship is over. The third, and always the hardest, is the grief work, what a person wishes they had said or done when he or she was still in the relationship. That part of grief is the most significant contributor to self-doubt.

  • If I had the relationship back as it was, even for a few moments, what would I have done or said differently?

  • Could I have done something when I still was so invested that could have made this turn out better?

  • Is it me?

  • I still loved my partner. I just didn’t like him. Should I have endured that?

4. Fear of the Unknown

This attachment is most obvious when a partnership has been long-standing. The dating world changes when people have been out of it for a long while. That environment may have very different options as people have aged, how financially independent they have become, whether they have children, what they have achieved, and who they have become.

People who can look back at their prior relationship and feel they have learned things they are grateful they’ve learned, still care for the people they’ve left behind, and have maintained their faith in love, are much more likely to be eventually successful in a new relationship.

Sadly, many people who have stayed too long in a relationship that should have ended sooner, are burned, cynical, and pessimistic. They’ve practiced habits that would not buy the currency in the new market. No one wants to inherit an angry, disappointed, or critical person, or looks forward to trying to heal them.

There are true unknowns that are totally and understandably legitimate:

  • How can I make it financially on my own?

  • Will anyone want me if I’ve failed this relationship?

  • Do I need to do anything to make myself more valuable in the dating environment?

  • What is my competition going to be out there, and can I beat it?

  • What if I never find another relationship that was better than the one I’m leaving?

  • What are the challenges I’m going to face in a new relationship that I might not be prepared for?

5. Nowhere to Go

Though this may seem like an odd way to feel or behave, it is truly not. When relationship partners have invested a huge amount of time, energy, and love into their partnership, they often have let go of other options that once not only interested them but sustained them.

People only have so many resources to offer at any one time in their lives. When a relationship is important, those resources are dedicated to keeping it alive and thriving. It is not possible to maintain many alternative lifestyle choices and still do that.

Also, with the amount of migration that is commonplace nowadays, one partner may have traveled far from his or her backup “tribe.” If the partners who are left behind find themselves unable to “go home,” they may feel lost and cut off from options.

There is another explanation for that sense of isolation and fear. Some people put so much into a relationship, they lose themselves and the characteristics that would have made them more autonomous and successful on their own. Women or men, for instance, who have given up promising careers to allow their partners to follow theirs, or to stay home and raise a family, often feel a loss of personal value as they think about entering what has now become foreign territory.

6. From a “We” to an “I”

There are some people in committed relationships who need to maintain their autonomy, individuality, and separate goals whether they are in a relationship or not. In partnerships that thrive from those intentions, those choices can be stimulating because they foster continued discovery and novelty for each of them. These separate-but-connected partners agree in advance that they want a relationship that is uniquely both attached and individuated.

Those relationships are not as common and may only run into difficulty when their separate desires and actions become competitive for the relationship’s resources. The partners in these relationships keep their love intact by making certain that their “us” remains uppermost in both of their minds. That often means attaining successful negotiating skills when conflicts emerge.

For most of us, that doesn’t happen. When a relationship ends, one or both partners have forgotten how to navigate the world as a single person. They are so used to the sharing of resources, the histories they’ve both shared, that they feel like emotionally-severed Siamese twins when they are no longer a team.

Those feelings of being finally not responsible to or for another can feel both liberating and terrifying. Knowing oneself as an interactive pair is very different from perceiving one’s separate self. The world is a safer and more supportive place for partners than for single people. Alone is much more vulnerable but preferable for someone who has felt entrapped in a prior relationship that has withered.

7. Territoriality over a Prior Partner

Though this may seem an unusual behavior to some, the need to maintain control over a lost partner is much more common than most would think. Unless the partner left behind finds someone new first, he or she may resent that the other is more content after leaving the relationship.

It may be embarrassing to admit, but it is very human, to wish a prior partner never to love again as he or she did in the newly-lost relationship. That is, of course, more intense when there are leftover feelings of anger, revenge, or humiliation in either partner when the end finally ensues.

When there has been a mutually agreed-upon ending, and the partners can still remember that they once loved each other deeply, they can wish the other partner well in a new endeavor. Much of that happens more often if time passes and any residual grief is resolved.

Many of my patients tell me of terribly awkward meetings when they run into each other with new partners, especially when an ending is fresh, or the new partner was “triangled” in before the ending. It is all too often a trigger for leftover feelings that never were resolved in the prior relationship.

8. The Disabling of Mutual History

This attachment is perhaps the most painful of all for both partners in every relationship that breaks up, particularly if it has been long-term. A couple who has shared many experiences together, produced a family, had share dreams and goals, become part of each other’s social group and families, shared spiritual experiences, suffered through mutual joy and loss, believed in the sanctity of their love, or didn’t believe that the relationship would ever end, truly hurt when that history fades away.

Some of the connections that arose in the relationship have to continue, even if they bring heartbreak or complexity. What about sharing holidays, especially if there are children? Mementos, like wedding books, that must now be divided? Mutually purchased treasures? Fractured relationships with those that no longer remain available and the difficulties of mutual friends taking sides? The loss of a family home? New partners in the future who don’t care about the past?

There are some people who are able to hold on to their mutual history while making new memories with others. But they are rare beings. The pain of a breakup that has been long in coming often has more negative memories than positive and both partners tend to throw them away as they throw each other away.

Sometimes, newly single people do reconnect with those people and experiences they left behind that are still available to them. They go back and pick up where they left off, sometimes creating a better life than the one they previously chose. Perhaps some are rationalizing, but some are not. High school reunions with past old loves do produce a greater-than-chance reconnection than one would expect to happen.

These are eight reasons why attachments keep people from leaving a relationship they know should end. They are not inclusive of every relationship ending, but they are the most common that my patients have shared with me over the past four decades.

No matter how much anger, hurt, exhaustion, or fear exists within every couple who have tried hard to overcome their differences but failed, there is always grief for the once-promising love that could not stay alive.

Relationships change people, sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better. Couples who once loved each other deeply, but can no longer help one another to grow, to thrive, and to become better people in the world, can give one another the gift of leaving the relationship before it becomes a bitter or disillusioned sorrow.

If that can happen, the partners have the opportunity to feel as if the relationship has been a success even if it has ended. If they are able to do that, they can deliver each other back into a world where both still believe that love, no matter what the cost, is still worth experiencing.


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