Marriage and Relationships: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I am re-posting a popular posting from March 2011 on marital relationships: 

I was asked how the conflict approach of this blog applies to marriage and relationships, and how to manage the associated conflict. No one is really an expert on relationships, least of all me, but…..

I suspect there is no easy answer, and my own view is that we have to first learn to be independent, to be our own people, to find ourselves, and learn to take care of ourselves with compassion, and then we are in some sort of position to take care of another/others/a family. Self compassion then other compassion. After the prolonged human dependence of growing up in a family, we need some independence before we try inter-dependence. And in terms of this blog’s approach to conflict, come to know and be clear about our interests, what makes us happy, and what we want out of life. It would be great if we had that sortedbefore embarking on a serious relationship, but that is easier said than done and we might have to wait too long… :)

And then I observe long-standing marriage or relationship conflicts and break ups, often in mid-life, and have come to, I hope, some useful thoughts based on observing a significant number of such break ups. These are not intended to be cast iron black and white rules, but something to think about and contest, based on your own experience; and there are no doubt many exceptions.  However, over time, I observe we reach a point where our long term relationship seems to be maybe giving us 70% of what we think we need. Being human, we are dissatisfied with this, and yearn for, and as consumers feel ‘entitled’ to, the missing 30%. We spot someone else who seems to offer that very missing 30% we are ‘entitled’ to, and so we are tempted to start a relationship with them.

What we don’t really notice is, that while they seem to offer the missing 30%, they don’t actually offer much of the 70% our existing partner offers quite well. We take that for granted. Been there, done that. Also, as we get to know the new person, we might if we were paying attention, discover they actually offer more like 15%….And so without thinking we jump from a 70% relationship to a 15% relationship (or maybe 25% to be fair) and wonder why we are not satisfied. And so it goes…

Also, our dissatisfaction with our existing relationship, may actually be little to do with the other person. We may be dissatisfied with who we are, and want to become someone different. We jump into the new relationship and lo and behold: there we still are, unchanged, and just as unsatisfactory to ourselves as in the old relationship.

So I guess this post suggests some realism, and more modesty in expectations about relationships. It does not suggest staying in an abusive relationship, or in one that has clearly failed over time to work. Peter Kramer’s thought provoking book ‘Should I Leave?‘ is excellent on this issue, and in particular the reality that a relationship isn’t over until its over.

But if a relationship has worked reasonably for many years, we might want to invest some effort to improve it, to deal with any conflict, and/or to change ourselves within it before jumping off somewhere else. Or we might want a little time out: some time on our own to sort ourselves out, figure out our real interests, while maintaining the connection.

If the relationship is definitely not viable, is effectively over, then we can leave it, but probably best not immediately for someone else, but for some time on our own to work our own stuff independently. In Biblical terms, some time in the ‘wilderness’. Then we can return to relationships and hope we can get close to 70% with a new person down the road. Good luck!

I guess the actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward knew something about relationships, as their marriage lasted over 50 years from 1958, until Paul Newman’s death in 2008,  in the notoriously volatile wanting it all world of Hollywood movies. Though they chose to live in Connecticut,  maybe to improve the odds…I guess they liked the 70%…

Footnote: Thanks to my friend Kathy for suggesting I post this perspective after we discussed it. Let me be clear, it is not about any current situations, but is mainly based on my time in the corporate world and the rotating relationships some senior executives engaged in, rather than finding themselves. They were not even looking. And to those on the journey of self discovery, our thoughts go out to you. Solidarity with the pilgrim!

Paul and Joanne fifty years on…


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Processes, Marital and Relationship Conflict, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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