Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C
I’m going to take a little trip away from talking about parent/child relationships to talking about the relationship between the parents. Just like parenthood, it is impossible for anyone to predict before entering into a relationship just what will happen next. No matter what the reason you had for building your family by birthing, fostering, or adopting children, it will, without question, change your relationship with your child’s other parent and may, at times, leave you scratching your head about whether to stay or go in this relationship.
I have personally found, and I believe it is also true for my clients, that during each stage of my own children’s development I re-live parts of my own childhood. It starts in infancy. It was when my children were infants that I looked at my daughters while rocking them and wondered, “Did my parents look at me this way? Did they feel this awe? This fierce protective feeling? Did they love me this much?” For me, for those questions, the answer was a yes, I don’t remember myself as an infant, but I know it in my soul. I have other, unanswered questions about other stages…the vast majority of us do. Our most intense questions seem to be the ones we have not resolved. People with a history of trauma tend to ask whether their child feels protected. We may compare the expectations of our parents for us to our expectations for our own children. When we pause to think about it, the questions can bubble up seemingly out of nowhere. All parents- even child therapists- wade through these swampy waters.
I can not think of a situation that raises intense questions more for any parent than when the relationship between parents is going through a major transition. The start of parenthood is a major transition. No longer do you have the option of pretending that you are not connected to each other for life. The time for walking away from each other and having the ability to completely cut ties if things go wrong is past. Even if someone seems to have walked away, rest assured, they may be gone, but they are not forgotten by anyone, nor have they forgotten. Similarly, your decision about leaving a relationship also becomes infinitely more complex as you are no longer considering only how this change would impact you but, I assume if you are reading this post, you are also someone who would consider whether that change would impact your children as well. I wish I had easy answers. I don’t, but I have, throughout the years, come across some helpful questions and observations that I use when I have a client, or client’s parents trying to work through these issues. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts to help you in your journey.
1. This first question, I’m going to paraphrase from memory and it comes from author and coach, Cheryl Richardson (her most recent book is “You Can Create an Exceptional Life*” and her radio show is call “Coach on Call” on Hay House Radio). It goes something like this: “If you decided to believe that from this moment on that your partner was never going to change a single thing about themselves, would you want to stay with them?” Let me be more specific: if they never gained or lost a single pound, if they never took you out more, nagged less, spent more or less time with the children, at work or with friends, etc. would you still want to stay with them? This is important because despite our longing to change people, we really can’t. There is no magical combination of words that will create change for a person unless they are ready to change. Take a moment to consider the possibility that your partner will never change, then think about if you still want to stay.
2. If you decide that you would not want to stay with this person unless they make changes, what is it that you absolutely require from your partner in order to stay? In other words, what are the nonnegotiables in order for you to want to be in a relationship? A little warning for this step is that this is a question that tends to bring out our inner critic. The inner critic tells us we should have known from the beginning that we needed that and that it is too late to ask for it now. After all, you decided to have children with this person so, as the saying goes, “you made your bed and now you have to lie in it,” and so on and so on. The critic can be relentless. Let me strongly encourage you to take a moment to tell your inner critic that you are not making the decision based on this question alone, only that this is a part of knowing what to do next. That being said, what is your bottom line on staying in this relationship? Requiring the absence of abuse, emotional manipulation, and dishonesty can seem like no-brainers to some of us, but, if those are things we grew up with, we can easily come to expect that they are part of life and are to be expected. Let me assure you, they are not a part of every relationship and if it is your belief that they are, please contact a therapist to begin to work on loving yourself more. I have met too many people who have said to me that they are staying with the person they are with because they don’t cheat and don’t hit. I’m going to encourage you to go beyond this. If you can’t think of the relationship you would want for yourself, think of the relationship you hope your children will have with a romantic partner one day.
3. This next one is a helpful “re-frame.” I got it from listening to Robert Holden (author of Shift Happens* and host of a radio show with the same title on Hay House Radio). He makes an important point that even if you decide to “end” what you think of as your relationship with your child’s other parent, you are really only ending one part of your relationship. In reality, what you are thinking of as an ending is actually a transition from one kind of relationship to another- from romantic, to co-parenting. If you are anticipating this change, please remember that people can act differently in different situations. I have seen parents where, if I’m being honest, I understand why the relationship ended with their partner, however, that same person can be a “good enough” parent. Sure, they may not do things the way you do them. But, just take a moment to think of every way you have ever seen someone fold clothes. Does everyone fold them the same way? Of course not! Even if the clothes are folded differently are they still folded? Yes. Sure, you may have a preference for how things are done, but your life will be easier if you stay open to the possibility (as long as the other parent is not abusive) that your child’s other parent may have an alternative and acceptable way of parenting as well. Having this attitude can improve your relationship whether or not it stays romantic or transitions to co-parenting.
4. This might be the most important of my tips. For the sake of your relationships with your child’s other parent, your child, and yourself, take really, really good care of yourself. The only thing we can control is how we react to different situations. We cannot change people with ultimatums, threats, and resentment. What we can do is to really take care of ourselves. Have you been telling yourself that as soon as your partner’s issues are taken care of you will____ (fill in the blank, lose weight, stop smoking, meditate)? Guess what? When you do that you are holding your partner up to a higher standard than you are holding yourself up to. Take time to be the kind of person you want to be with. Follow your interests, be loving, take care of your chores around the house, laugh often. When we do these things there are a few possibilities. One possibility is that you will find that you are happier and see how you may have been contributing to the unhappiness in the relationship. Another is that you will find that you are strong enough to leave the relationship if it becomes apparent that it is not healthy for you. Still another is that your partner may take notice of your positive changes and begin to make some as well by your example. I know your children will do just that also.
Perhaps the overall question of staying or going is the wrong one after all. More importantly, we want to ask, “Who do I want to be in this relationship?” If we can ask and answer that question, then work to get to be that person, then we can find happiness either in or outside of any relationship. It is when we stop looking to outside relationships to fix something inside that we find ourselves and when you find yourself to be a person you will always like, that you will always want to be with and around, that you will also find you are able to have relationships with others that meet your expectations as well. I strongly encourage anyone considering separation or divorce from their child’s other parent to seek therapists knowledgable in helping parents to create a healthy co-parenting relationship.
*You can find the links to purchase any books mentioned in this post by clicking the Amazon widgets button at the top, right hand corner of this page. See disclaimer page.
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