Once upon a time, I found myself in a marriage with a man who had totally checked out and had very much expressed his hatred of being stuck with me. But he also didn’t want to get divorced. Looking back, I can certainly see that someone who expresses how much he hates being with me shouldn't be someone that I allow to stay in my intimate life. But it wasn't that easy then. It was a tricky line to walk and I didn't know what to do.
So I was opened up with a friend of mine...okay, I was venting…and she gave me some advice. She told me to just act as if everything was fine. That if he actually wanted out, he would make it happen, and since I didn’t want out, I needed to just keep showing up. She gave an example of a friend of hers who had done this and, eventually, her husband checked back in and they are now happily married. Who knows whether this is true or not, but it very much did not work for me at that time. It just prolonged the misery we both felt.
And here’s the thing. Maybe that is good advice at times. We all have times when we aren’t as checked into our relationships as we might otherwise be. When we’re in a funk. When we’re in a depressed state. When we have a lot on our minds or our hearts are heavy. And wouldn’t we all love to be loved and cared for even when we aren’t at our best? I know I sure would! While it’s not really something I’ve experienced yet, I ultimately would love a partnership where I’m loved and cared for, even when I’m having a bad day or week. Which is why I do this for the people I love--I believe in treating others with love. And it’s also a learning process of how to do this with healthy boundaries. I've joked....and I used to believe...that I had a six-month expiration mark of how long someone could care for me. Now I know that speaks more to the way red flags can easily be hidden or ignored for about six months and that love-bombing in those early months are not actual indicators of real and lasting feelings.
I'm not interested in become cynical and I also don’t think I’m alone in feeling lopsided in the amount of effort given in relationships in my past. There’s this movement I see all over the place about only giving equal effort and that anything else is wrong. But that’s just not practical. Life is messy. And each person’s 100% commitment looks different over time. Who are we to judge what is exactly equal? Who are we to say that someone else isn’t giving their best? Sometimes life is overwhelming and their best is simply continuing to breathe in and out each day. Sometimes that’s ours. Sometimes we’re the one that needs our partner to keep being there for us, even when we can’t be there for them. And sometimes they’re the one that needs us to keep showing up and being there for them, even when they can’t return it.
And that’s where we act as if. We act as if that partner still wants to be in our life, even if they haven’t made time for us recently. We act as if they aren’t ignoring us on purpose. We act as if they really do still want us in their corner, even when they don’t express it. Our important relationships deserve this effort, this care, this love-as-a-verb.
So where’s the line? How do we know how long to keep this up? How do we know if they really do want out or are ignoring us on purpose? How do we respect our own needs and wants and boundaries and expectations in our relationships? How long do we give effort and show desire that isn’t returned in a way we can feel? How many times do we try and communicate our concerns or desires to no avail?
It’s going to be different for everyone, for every relationship. It’s going to depend on what’s really going on. It’s going to depend on the depth of commitment. I teach my children: “Mean what you say and say what you mean.” So if someone is telling you that they don’t want to be with you, it’s time to have a conversation about what that means. And it’s also time to decide what your boundaries are if someone says that to you. For me, it’s a hard line now. If someone tells me they don’t want to be with me, then I say good-bye. It’s not my job to convince them that they actually do. It’s not my job to remind them of all the ways I’m a good partner and worth loving and being with. It’s not my job to act as if they didn’t really mean it. It's really not even my job to think about how much they'll regret the choice to leave since it's their life and I choose to trust they're making the right choice for them. It is my job to remember that I am worth loving and that is still true even if someone decides I’m no longer for them.
Those words are a hard line for me because I know how damaging it is to have someone you love tell you that they don’t want to be with you, but if you could just be this thing or that thing then they could love you again. It’s actually incredibly controlling and it led to a whole lotta dancing through hoops and contorting myself to try and be perfect enough to be worth loving again. Because, after all, if he didn’t want to get divorced because he just needed me to be this or that and then he could love me again, then I was going to do my damndest to be those things. It played to all of my insecurities and, as such, I truly thought that I was the problem.
But the finish line never came. Whatever I did, there was always a new metric that I hadn’t met--including telling me that he hated having a wife that was always working so hard at everything because he deserved a wife that didn’t have to try so hard at being a good person. (Sidenote, when he told me he was getting married again, he described his new wife as “just such a good person.”)
Maybe your hard line is different. That’s okay. But if there is one thing I can impress upon you, it’s this: it’s okay to have dealbreakers. When I first really understood this, it was revolutionary. Especially for a marriage. I’d been taught that marriage was for better or worse and just assumed that this was the “worse.” Better or worse means you have each other’s backs through the ups and downs of life; it doesn’t mean that one of you causes the other hurt after hurt after hurt with the expectation that they can just keep taking anything that’s doled out in the name of “better or worse.” That’s abuse. And it’s not okay.
Are you in a relationship that makes you question your worth? That makes you dance through hoops to be valued? That makes you cry way more than you laugh? Where you feel like you are the only one showing up and it’s been that way as long as you can remember? Where you feel that you’ve been acting “as if” for as long as you can remember?
Before you go burn your life down, take some time to take inventory. Take time to examine what is really real. Take a look at your life as an observer would see it--pretend you’ve swapped lives with a friend and you are seeing what is real with new, unemotionally attached eyes. What do you see? I know we talk a lot about feeling your feelings, but take those out for now and just observe. What interactions do you see? Pull out a journal or a notebook and start writing. Be honest in your assessment of what you see. What resentments are being held onto? What arguments are being had repeatedly or otherwise not resolved? What words are being said?
What would you tell a friend that was experiencing these things? What would you tell your daughter?
If the answer is “run,” then ask yourself the next questions. Why is it okay for you? Why are you okay with these things? Remember that there’re no right or wrong answers here!! This is your life and you get to choose what reasons work for you.
Which leads us back to dealbreakers. The very first thing to do is to give yourself permission to have dealbreakers. As you look through your interactions and ask yourself why you've stayed in harmful relationships or why you're staying in one now, I want you to start thinking about what kinds of things are your dealbreakers. Dealbreakers might be things like infidelity or abuse. And while it’s easy to say abuse, it’s not so easy to identify. That’s why it’s important to name what is real and address those behaviors. Name calling. Financial control. Not allowing you to spend time with friends or family. Hurtful words disguised as teasing. Use of force in an argument. Throwing things. Not listening to your concerns. Forced or coerced sex. Threats. Disrespecting your privacy. Not being allowed to have privacy. Telling you what to wear, how to behave. Degrading you. Cutting remarks. Acting like Dr. Jekyll in public and Mr. Hyde in private.
Identifying your dealbreakers doesn’t necessarily equate to laying down the law, giving an ultimatum, or hitting the bricks. Those ultimatums are particularly important to be careful of. It’s just not as easy as it sounds to say “if you do this thing again then I’m outta here.” Why? Well, how many times have they already done this and you’re still here? How many times have they said “I'm sorry, I won’t do that again.” And really, haven’t you been told not to do something and you do it just to see what might really happen? Same thing goes here, so don’t say things you don’t actually mean or aren’t prepared to follow through on. We teach people how to treat us, and if we tell them that we will leave if they call us names again….and then we don’t leave, we’ve taught them it’s actually okay to continue. Try something smaller that you can act on right away like, “I’ll go to another room or leave the house for a walk or a drive when you treat me this way.” Start paying attention so that you can make informed choices.
Because leaving and staying gone isn’t easy. Even when it’s the right choice. Taking inventory of what's real isn't easy, but it's an incredibly important step to acknowledge the patterns so that you can make choices about how to proceed towards your goal of creating a life you love.
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