Cheryl Strayed once wrote, “So long as you stay in a relationship that isn’t meeting your needs, you’re in a relationship that isn’t meeting your needs.”
Not exactly rocket science, but it’ll knock your ass in the dirt if you’re not paying attention.
And that’s just it. A certain level of ignorance, delusion, dissociation, or inattentiveness is required of us to stick around and wait for some schmuck to turn bullshit into wine. Trauma, toxic shame, fear, abuse, or coercion could do the trick as well, but those tend to result in the same types of disconnectedness anyway.
If you have a vague sense of emotional starvation, treading water, holding your breath, or walking on eggshells in your relationship; if you’re not sure if you should stick around and work it out or head for the hills, here are a couple pointers to help get you sorted out.
Do I Know What My Needs Are?
First off, if you haven’t the foggiest notion of what your needs are, it’s gonna be hard to justify resenting someone else for not satisfying them. I could write a whole article about understanding your needs (I did, actually, right here), but the fundamentals can be summarized by the four S’s and the five A’s.
We need to feel Safe, Seen, Soothed, and Secure in our relationship. Not that our partner needs to deliver those perfectly, all day, every day. Certainly, they’re allowed to drop the ball from time to time. And obviously our own participation is required to cultivate the four S’s in our life in general. But our partner needs to do a decent job contributing to them — not threatening or diminishing them — on most days or we’re likely to feel trapped behind enemy lines (not conducive to healthy intimacy, btw).
Also, we need to experience Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection, and Allowing with consistency in order to feel loved (see David Richo’s How to Be an Adult in Relationships). Again, no one is perfect. But if your partner barely has two A’s to rub together on any given day, your relationship is gonna be rough.
It’s worth mentioning also that, while these are fairly universal human needs, most people have different ideas of what meeting these needs entails (The 5 Love Languages, for example). So maybe your partner thinks they’re giving you plenty of attention by texting you pictures of their genitals from time to time, but you may have a completely different vision for your happily ever after. And this will require some honest, vulnerable, mature communication between the two of you to get on the same page.
Do I Even Know What I Want in a Partner?
Unfortunately, most people never make a concerted effort to narrow down the top five most important characteristics of an ideal partner. That’s like house shopping with no idea of budget, location, floor plan, school district, number of bedrooms… condo, trailer, houseboat. Just locking down a thirty-year mortgage on any old thing that has an inside. That would be bonkers, no? So why do we do that shit with life partners?
You can grab a sheet of looseleaf and do that right now if you want (or download the Fix Your Picker Workbook for more guidance), but it’s important to get clear on a few non-negotiables you need in a partner. If you have a hundred non-negotiables, you’ll probably die alone, and if you have zero, you may expire married to an asshole. I think five is a good number. However, I firmly believe the permanent #6 on everyone’s list needs to be “Committed to personal growth.”
If you’re with someone with no capacity for change or self-reflection, who thinks they have no room to grow, they don’t make mistakes or have blindspots, they’re always right, and they’re as good as they’ll ever be, you may be dealing with a sociopath, narcissist, profoundly wounded human being, or complete moron. And if they’re not willing to get help with their brazen emotional ineptitude, you may be on a sinking ship, and you have a serious choice to make.
Also, if someone doesn’t have the five most important qualities you want in a partner, that relationship will likely suck and/or not end well.
If it’s a brand new relationship, shut that thing down ASAP. If this is your long-term, committed partner, you may both have some serious issues that require professional help to untangle (because we date at our own emotional level).
Am I Really Just Afraid of Being Alone?
Lots of people are in a relationship for no other reason than because loneliness is worse. Even if the relationship is a total dumpster fire. It’s like the great psychotherapist Virginia Satir wrote, “People prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.”
There could be any number of reasons for a crippling fear of being single: attachment trauma, abandonment issues, developmental arrests, immaturity, low self-esteem, mental illness, lack of money, support, or resources, etc. But if you’re in a romantic relationship because you can’t NOT be, that’s not a relationship — it’s a coping mechanism. And I recommend seeking professional help immediately to liberate you from that unholy prison of emotional bondage.
This is a point worth re-emphasizing. If your relationship is basically a trauma response with no one behind the wheel, the concepts and suggestions contained within this article may appear foreign and painfully out of reach. Trauma strips people of their agency, which is why so many people feel utterly powerless to improve or leave a shitty relationship. If this is you, for the love of God and small children, get help.
What If I Can’t Do Any Better?
Some folks stick it out in unhealthy relationships because they don’t think they can do any better (or that they don’t deserve better). This is not an unfounded fear. You don’t “find” a healthy relationship or “get into” a healthy relationship — you create one. And if you don’t have the skill set required to pull that off, then no, you probably can’t do any better at the moment.
HOWEVER… you can definitely learn, heal, grow, and become a better version of yourself who can!
So you really just have to decide between something that’s presently unsatisfying in real life and the possibility of something better in the future. Then, either settle into your misery or get serious help, respectively.
Should I Go?
“If you’re unhappy, then leave your partner” isn’t really sound advice. Because if you’re the problem, you’ll just pack up your unhappiness and take it somewhere else like a traveling circus. In most cases, the problem is more or less 50/50 between you and your partner. Getting clear on all of the above considerations is how you own your fifty percent and make a well-informed decision.
Now, if your partner doesn’t check all six boxes on your list or has some major, flaming, red flag deal-breakers, then it’s time to throw the e-break and get real honest. It may sound like, “I’m looking for certain non-negotiables in a partner, and I have a handful of drop-dead deal-breakers, and if you can pass muster on this short list, we’ve got something worth fighting for. If not, I’m afraid we’re just not compatible, and no amount of suffering, sacrifice, or sex is gonna make this into something it’s not.”
And to clarify, a deal-breaker isn’t “rude” or “has debt.” A deal breaker is “addicted to meth” or “married to someone else.” They are glaring unambiguous stop signs.
You can’t build a sustainable relationship on good looks, charm, and potential, so if someone can’t meet your bare-ass minimum requirements for a satisfying partnership, you’re trying to bang a square peg into a round hole using your heart as a hammer (not a wise choice in the way of blunt objects). And I recommend, ummm… not doing that?
I know, easier said than done. But for fuck’s sake, don’t waste your one precious life in a terrible relationship. If you can’t escape that thing, find a solid therapist or relationship coach to either jailbreak you or help you become healthy enough to leave on your own steam.
Should I Stay?
On the other hand, if your person checks all the right boxes but is simply speaking the wrong love language or coming up short on a few things, you may be able to right this ship. Especially if they’ve got enough humility and willingness to collaborate on a win/win solution.
And if you didn’t know your basic relational needs from a hole in the ground prior to reading this article, there’s a strong chance your partner doesn’t know either. It may be a good idea to sit down together and lay all the cards on the table. The four S’s and the five A’s. Love languages. Where do y’all stand on those? Maybe even brush up on conflict resolution, nonviolent communication, and the four horsemen of relationship apocalypse before having this conversation so you don’t inadvertently burn it all to the ground with poor communication skills.
If both of you are fully committed to healing and personal growth (in addition to being fundamentally compatible in the first place), you are sure to make progress. Because here’s the secret: There’s no such thing as “relationship problems,” only personal problems we project onto our partners. So, if you work on your issues and your partner works on theirs, you can revamp your entire relationship into something satisfying and sustainable.
But obviously, the timeline of this transformation depends largely on the depths of your and your partner’s trauma, shame, dissociation, and developmental deficits. Probably a good idea to peruse my article How To Know If Someone Can Change to understand whether either one of you has what it takes to break the cycle.
And as always, I cannot overemphasize the usefulness of a good trauma-informed coach or therapist.
Ball’s in Your Court
In summary, it all boils down to compatibility, relationship skills, and mental health.
If you want a partner who’s health-conscious, adventurous, responsible, honest, and family-oriented (and #6 — committed to personal growth!) and you’re with someone who’s not those six things, it may be that you simply aren’t compatible, and staying with them is a flagrant act of self-abandonment. Get out of that silly-ass relationship as soon as possible.
If you have a compatible partner, but one or both of you have no idea how mature adult relationships work, then your job is to learn some relationship skills. Therapy, coaching, read books and blogs, listen to podcasts, go on couples’ retreats — whatever you gotta do. Educate yourself and start doing what successfully partnered people do. It’ll take time, but daily practice will get you there.
Lastly, if you or your partner have unresolved mental health challenges like trauma, addiction, codependency, blinding rage, depression, anxiety, etc. that prevent you from being whole functioning adults, you gotta address those things (not just sweep them under the rug or self-medicate) before you can do anything skillful or effective on the domestic front.
Because your relationship will never be healthier than you are.
Dang, that was like a whole therapy session!
Dang, that was like a whole therapy session!
Dang, that was like a whole therapy session!
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