Some relationships are obvious clunkers: the drug addict, the physically violent, the partner who sneaks out of your birthday dinner a million times to text his “platonic” friend Marianne. These are the people your friends beg you to leave but you stay because you’re recreating or rectifying some twisted family dynamic you’ve never grown beyond. If that’s the case, no self-help article is going to help you; yours is the realm of a qualified therapist. But often, the question of whether to stay or go isn’t simple. “Good” people can still have bad relationships with each other and it can be hard to recognize that a couple is doomed if your partner isn’t an obvious loser.
Several years ago, I became involved with a man who, on the surface, seemed almost perfect.
I’ll call him James. He was sweet, easy-going, and the devoted father of two well-mannered children sharing custody with his ex-wife, with whom he appeared to have a cordial relationship. My only concern at the outset was that James hadn’t been in a relationship since his divorce five years earlier although he assured me that his marriage was truly over. Everything else about him was wonderful, so I decided not to let this warning sign deter me. Divorced men (and women, for that matter) are seldom completely baggage-free.
From the beginning, our relationship was a bit like a local bus ride: lots of stops and starts. James was sweet, supportive and appropriately cautious about introducing me to his children, which he finally did after two months. He was also flaky, often changing or canceling plans at the last minute. Even our sex life resembled a backfiring car; I never knew if he’d follow through or abruptly break off without explanation. I didn’t know what to make of James and I regularly asked myself if it was time to get out. But there were never any big problems, just little ones that were easily explained away at the time.
The turning point came six months into our relationship.
I’d asked him to take Valentine’s Day evening off from work, and he “forgot.” At dinner the following night, he gave me a stuffed animal. It was Hallmark’s special that year: a bear with a hollowed out stomach that could conceal a jewelry box or other surprise. There was nothing inside; James hadn’t even removed the paper wadding. It’s the thought that counts in any gift, and this one said: “I didn’t bother to open the obvious zipper or even wonder why it was there.”
I’m not one for angry outbursts so I waited a few days before sitting James down for a talk. I told him that after six months I needed to know where our relationship was going. He admitted that I deserved clarity, strongly hinted that he wanted to stay together and promised to call me in a couple of days. I never heard from him again. After about a week, I left a message on his answering machine, officially ending whatever it was we had.
Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back I can see where I went wrong. All my previous relationships had ended in clean, obvious ways: a fight, a long-distance move, another woman. There were no such end points with James, just a lot of chronic frustration and ambiguity.
I failed to recognize that never being totally happy was reason enough to leave and that is, I believe, the key to deciding whether to stick it out or bail.
I’d been sticking around for the potential of what James and I could be if he kept our dates, if we worked through our sexual issues, if I could adjust to having two small children in the relationship mix. The fact that I occasionally got brief glimpses of that potential only made it harder to see that in the real world, we were going nowhere.
I’m friends with a married couple who talk to each other almost exclusively in “Dr. Phil” lingo: continually acknowledging each other’s feelings and voicing all frustrations in careful “I” statements devoid of anger or blame. Going out to dinner with them exhausts me and I see in them what long-term involvement with James might have been an eternity of never quite getting what I want.
In the wake of my six-month non-relationship with James, I’ve adopted a 100-50 test: If I’m not 100% content in a relationship 50% of the time, it’s probably time to get out. Every relationship takes work, but that work shouldn’t be unrelenting. It’s as simple as that.