Couple therapist: “Life is definitely too short to stay in an unhappy relationship”

What should I do if I actually want to end the relationship but can’t? Couples therapist Eric Hegmann has answers. Let’s imagine that I’m in a relationship that isn’t good for me, but I can’t manage to break away. What do you advise me?

Eric Hegman: The most important thing is that you listen to your feelings because they want to protect you. Negative feelings are an integrated warning system, and it is always a mistake to push them aside and hope that they will go away if you ignore them. Actually, you should approach your feelings and say: “Thank you very much, dear emotions, it’s nice that you’re here, I’ll take a look now to see what that is and then react to it.” This isn’t always easy when you have strong emotions, but there are therapeutic emotional regulation tools you can use.

What if I have accepted my negative feelings but still can’t separate because of fear or because the guilt is so great?

Then you should look at your relationship biography. The more painful your experiences of loss, the harder it is for you to separate. Conscious and unconscious strategies then come into play that prevent you from letting go. The famous sentence “I can’t break up” actually means “I don’t want to break up because I haven’t yet found the motivation that would convince me.” It helps to look at what separation experiences you have had and whether that is something that is stopping me from ending the relationship.

And if I answer this question with yes, but my fear is still too great, another terrible one separation to experience?

Then I would say: seek support instead of holding out for a long time. One should not forget that life is not that incredibly long. It’s definitely too short to stay in an unhappy relationship. Fortunately, there are therapeutic options to resolve such blockages, for example with the help of EMDR. This approach comes from trauma therapy. This means you can also store separation experiences differently so that they burden you significantly less. By the way, couples often come to me where one partner already knows that they don’t want to continue the relationship, but would like me to take on the job of announcing the end of the relationship. A good therapist won’t do that, but he will then ask: “Why are you sitting here, I have the impression that you have already made up your mind, am I right?”

Why do some people fail to express their desire to separate?

This has different reasons. For some couples, it’s about uncertainty about the viability of the relationship. Here, the therapist’s assessment should support or legitimize their own decision. For other couples, the fear of their partner’s reaction is so great that the separation should take place in a safe setting. And then there are people who don’t want to separate themselves because they can’t bear the feeling of failure and want to provoke their partner with their behavior so that he or she mentions the separation after the hopelessness has been outlined in couples therapy is. But there are also other good reasons not to separate: financial dependence, concern for the child’s well-being, hostility from family members or fear of violence.

And then?

Then it can help to imagine what possibilities life would offer if you created the space for new things.

But if you’re afraid of it, you only see horror scenarios.

I believe that positive experiences give us the most energy. It can also make sense to take a break from the relationship to see: How do I experience this when I have a little distance? As long as I’m stuck in the system, I can hardly see a way out.

I know women who say: I’m tired of painful experiences, I’ll leave it alone with love. What can help them?

This is the most thorough avoidance strategy you can use. But there are also unconscious avoidance strategies. These people then say, for example: “I don’t look, I let myself be found.” That’s the same message: that I need someone to give me enough security so that I don’t have to worry about having another painful experience. But then you often have to wait a long time. Other people may experience that they always end up with partners who are taken or unavailable. This is rarely a coincidence. If this keeps happening, I would definitely recommend looking: Is this a pattern, and what does this pattern have to do with? It is important to remember that separation and loss are among the worst things a person can experience. It’s normal that we don’t want to experience that.

Nevertheless, serial monogamy still seems to be the dominant relationship model.

We have more relationships today than any generation before, and of course we have more separation experiences as a result. Online dating, with the many rejections we can experience, doesn’t help our self-esteem much either. And of course that also changes the way people approach each other. We are much more distant, more cautious and suspicious, always having the fear in the back of our minds: Phew, it didn’t work last time, how can I do it better this time?

How do you get out of this vicious circle?

It takes a lot of courage and trust. However, looking for trust in your partner is the wrong strategy. It’s about enabling trust in your own healing powers and in your own resistance powers.

So what to do?

The goal should be: put an end to the negative experiences that burden and control me and sabotage my creative options! We should pay much more attention to how we can break through them and experience new things. So say less: “What am I missing, where is my lack?” But rather: “What is available to me and what can I create with it?” The glass is always better half full than half empty when you want to go out and try something new. And it does something to you when you go to a new meeting without the image in your head of ‘it won’t work anyway’. Suddenly it’s fun again. And that’s what it’s all about: We want a person who we feel like we can still have fun with in ten or 15 years.


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