During the period of time leading up to my separation I talked to so many friends. When your relationship is in crisis many of us feel the need to compare notes. Should it really be this hard? Am I going through a “rough patch” or is this something more?
In the end, I realized nobody could actually help. Nobody was in my shoes and could decide how I should feel about this situation. I had people tell me about their relationships that sounded like they were in much dire need to part ways, but that isn’t for me to decide either. They stayed, I didn’t. What we each find acceptable or tolerable is different. Hurt that has been exchanged within a relationship only has intensity for those in it. We can commiserate and empathize but that’s about it.
Basically for several months I had The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go? on repeat in my head. And as if making a major, life-changing, decision that affects all of your loved ones isn’t hard enough, just add, what I consider to be, the tiredest advice given by most well meaning friends: check off all the boxes.
Before you throw in the towel you want to be able to say you tried everything. That you’ve checked off all the boxes.
It seems like sage advice, but everyone’s boxes are different and I found it to be just another list of items that I was failing at. Not only was my partnership floundering but now because I didn’t check off whatever box a friend was suggesting, in their eyes, I wasn’t doing everything I could to save it. It made my final decision to separate seem illegitimate. I’d skipped a box.
The biggest box was couples counselling. For those who’ve gone and it’s worked, it’s the magic that can fix every discord. I don’t disagree that it’s a great tool if you find the right fit, and it helps many many couples avoid divorce. On the flip side I also know way too many couples that have used counselling repeatedly to work through the same issue over and over again. They get to a place where things are “better than they were”…. whatever that even means… and then they continue on until they fall back into the same pattern of behaviour and then head back to their trusty counselor.
Why didn’t we try it and check off that box? Well we did, barely, and only after we were separated. My main reasoning was that we were in such a cycle of anger that I didn’t feel we could go to someone each week to unpack issues and then go home to pack more. Also, this kind of help isn’t a quick fix. We needed space from one another immediately before we drowned in each others negativity. So we separated and then went to talk to someone a month later, and one of the first things she asked was how invested we were or were we just checking off a box... So even the counselors know about these boxes we’re all blindly sorting through.
So what is a friend to do when you need support going through this kind of decision making process? Beyond being the simple sounding board they need, I’d try to help them sort through the facts. What are the facts of the events happening that are making them question their relationship? And what is factually keeping them there or preventing them from leaving? Facts can help us all see a situation more clearly but they also keep you from being too far on one side of the fence (leave vs. stay.)