The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little. – Thomas Merton
I’ve written a daily blog for PsychCentral.com called, Ask The Therapist since 2010. We receive nearly 2,500 questions a month from around the world. Some of the problems are heartbreaking. Like the young woman in India who doesn’t want the arranged marriage her parents have planned; or the new mother from Canada who found intimate texts on her husband’s phone — to another woman. The recovering heroin addict from Detroit who continually relapses because his girlfriend is still using. Or the wife who finds her husband is still having an affair — even after he told her he stopped and was in marriage counseling. For the person seeking help their story can be complex, emotionally charged, and overwhelming.
I’ve personally answered over 1500 of these questions and the vast majority have to do with unsatisfying relationships, and what can be done to make it better. What strikes me is that a surprising number of queries have the answer rooted in the question.
For these questions, the answer to a better life includes putting an end to ineffectual behavior. You’ll have a hard time kicking your habit if you stay with someone using; and why are you still with a husband who cheats — and then lies?
While the answers seem evident, it is often difficult to realize we may be contributing to our pain. The first step in making sustainable positive changes often begins with stopping, changing, or limiting unsuccessful behaviors. But why is this so difficult?
Researchers who study self-defeating behavior—why we do something that isn’t good for us—find we ignore risks and some obvious problems in favor of immediate pleasure or temporary relief. The girlfriend and the drug feel better in the moment; and if you divorce your cheating husband you may have to move out of your lovely home. It becomes a vicious cycle. When we fail to self-regulate toward a long-term goal, frustration keeps us drawn to what brings immediate relief—and if nothing changes—nothing changes.
When a relationship has been systematically disappointing, combative, or unsatisfying many times people are staying in it because they believe it will change for the better. They hang on to the few moments of joy, love, or contentment sprinkled throughout their time together. In other words—they are drawn to the relationship’s potential—not its reality.
When something has been a problem for a while there’s a pattern in place, and quite often we’ve made an arrangement with ourselves to maintain the pattern. This is the time to be honest with yourself, or get an outside viewpoint—are you doing something that allows the circumstance to continue? Or, as Thomas Merton has cautioned, are you settling for too little?
There tends to be three steps in assessing the viability of a relationship. The first is an honest assessment. This is perhaps the most difficult because it means assessing the quality of how you are actually feeling in the relationship. There are surveys you can take, meditation practices that can help, but at the end of the day the work is on being honest with yourself. The key question is to ask yourself: Am I happy enough in this relationship to stay in it? If the answer is yes—then you continue and keep assessing it from time to time—while hopefully working with your partner to continue to build on what you have. But if the answer is no, then you move to the second step.
In this phase you do everything you can to make your frustrations and disappointments known. This may require a couple’s counselor, it may requiring speaking up for yourself much more than ever before, or it may require you to set limits where there were none. This is a very difficult phase because it often requires confrontation and conflict. I have found that many people get stuck here and make justifications about why they won’t do it. The major ones I’ve heard are: The kids are too young: I don’t want to leave our home; I can’t make it on my own; He (or she) isn’t that bad; I don’t have any money, I can’t believe this is happening; and the most damaging or all— maybe things will change.
In this assessment you’ve tried to make things different and better—but you partner either can’t, or won’t make the change. In either case this is a moment of truth. The essential question here is: Can you accept the relationship the way it is? If the answer is yes—then the work is about self-care and reducing your expectations that things will get much better. This is the time for you to take exquisitely good care of yourself and develop your skills and talents independent of your partner. While this is often a very good idea in healthy relationships—it is imperative if you are going to stay in a relationship that is limited.
Finally, If you have made the assessment, tried to introduce changes, and have realized that this isn’t what you want, then the next step is making it clear that the relationship isn’t working and you need to make a change. Oddly enough this is often when your partner has the realization that something is radically wrong, and tries to do everything they can to change. This can be baffling, but set a time limit for assessing the changes. More often than not they are short lived.
If you have made the decision to leave it is best to get support from a therapist. These transitions are difficult, and while family and friends can be amazingly helpful, they often don’t have the emotional distance and perspective a professional can bring. While the transformations may be difficult they will move your life forward. Most importantly, they will keep you from settling for too little.