The decision whether one should stay or leave is one of the most consequential and painful any of us ever has to make. On any given day, many millions of people worldwide will be secretly turning the issue over in their minds as they go about their daily lives, their partners beside them possibly having little clue as to the momentous decision weighing upon them.
The choice is perhaps more common now than it ever was. We expect to be deeply happy in love and therefore spend a good deal of time wondering whether our relationships are essentially normal in their sexual and psychological frustrations – or are beset by unusually pathological patterns which should impel us to get out as soon as we can. What films or novels we’ve been exposed to, the state of our friends’ relationships, the degree of noise surrounding new sexually-driven dating apps, not to mention how much sleep we’ve had, can all play humblingly large roles in influencing us one way or another.
Awkwardly, it seems that no one else actually really minds what we end up doing, which gives the decision a degree of existential loneliness it might not always have possessed. Historically, the choice was in a sense a good deal easier because there were simply so many stern external sanctions around not leaving. Religions would insist that God blessed unions and would be furious at their being torn asunder. Society strongly disapproved of break-ups and cast separating parties into decades of ignominy and shame. And psychologists would explain that children would be deeply and permanently scarred by any termination in their parents’ relationship.
But one by one, these objections to quitting have fallen away. Religions no longer terrify us into staying, society doesn’t care and psychologists routinely tell us that children would prefer a broken family to an unhappy one. The burden of choice, therefore, falls squarely upon us. The only thing determining whether to stay or leave is how we feel – which can be a hard matter indeed to work out for ourselves, our feelings having a dispiriting habit of shifting and evading any efforts at rational clarification.
The only thing determining whether to stay or leave is how we feel.
In the circumstances, it might help to have a set of questions, devil’s advocate in nature, to fall back upon, a check-list to dialogue within one’s mind in the silent hours of the morning from the chill vantage point of the spare room couch:
- How much of our unhappiness can be tightly attributed to this particular partner – and how much might it, as we risk discovering five years and multiple upheavals later, turn out to be simply an inherent feature of any attempt to live in close proximity to another human?
- Though it is of course always essentially their fault, what tiny proportion of the difficulties might we nevertheless be contributing to the discord? In what modest way might we be a little hard to be around?
- Consider the annoying traits in all previous partners we’ve had and people we’ve known that our current partners happen not to have. What do we manage not to fight about?
- Probe at new infatuations and crushes: by getting to know them better.
- Observe closely how many sexually available and intelligent people the single types around us, especially those hooked up to new dating apps, manage to encounter day-to-day.
- Try to have another conversation with your partner in which you do not accuse them of mendacity and instead simply explain, calmly, how you actually feel and how sad you are about quite a few things.
- Reflect on how you would really feel as a child if, henceforth, you were going to have two tiny bedrooms, two new step-parents and possibly a few more new half siblings? Compare with the scratchy reality of the current set-up.
- Question how normal it is for any couple to have great sex after 22 months together.
- Ask yourself if you are ready to face the risk of perhaps achieving no more than exchanging a familiar kind of unhappiness for a new and more complex variety? Wonder whether you really want to choose hope over experience.
- Then, if you still have the impulse to leave, with the chances of subsequent regret lessened at least a touch, with a heavy heart and a cautious mind… leave.