Would you stay or would you go?
Several people have asked me for my thoughts on the case of actress LJ Reyes and her breakup with Paolo Contis. It seems that their relationship has garnered public interest and evoked sympathy and dismay. People found themselves relating and reflecting on their own relationships and what they would do in such a crisis. Would you stay or would you go?
I have long accepted the fact that, even as a psychologist, I can never predict how a relationship is going to turn out. Turning mostly to reason will certainly give you a low batting average (what is reason in a relationship anyway?) Couples base their behavior and decisions on a combination of logistics and practicality, sentimentality and attachment, as well as values and principles. What makes a relationship interesting—and challenging—is that there is no one right way of doing it. Each couple has to figure out their own way of handling things. When we loosen our attachment to finding the right answer—heck, even on finding the right one—we gain the clarity of heart and mind in order to see our relationship properly.
Even though one cannot guarantee a relationship’s shelf-life, one can foresee challenges that a couple will face based on their temperament, their coping tendencies, and experience. Accepting that challenges and crises will occur in one’s relationship is crucial to its success. For example, people who get insulted and offended at the mere mention of a prenup, being in denial that a change of heart can happen, are the ones who are likely to dwell on the hurt—that leads to blame—rather than solving the crisis. In fact, I think making decisions on assets and custody while being in love turn out much better than when you have already lost respect for each other. Identifying potential challenges in your relationship doesn’t always make it a deal-breaker; you can create agreements on how to deal with it when it happens. If we have disaster preparedness, let us also develop relationship preparedness.
When I entertain couples who want to go into therapy, I have two pre-conditions: both parties must be genuinely willing to make their relationship work and they are willing to change their own behavior in order to do so. Willingness in a relationship is a must. Most couples at this stage in their crisis usually don’t meet the latter condition. When a problem in a relationship is left unaddressed, it’s only a matter of time before blame and resentment take root. While they serve to protect one’s ego, they blind a person from seeing the entire picture and prevent them from finding a way out of crisis.
Willingness is necessary and crucial, but sadly not sufficient. You may be willing to save the relationship, but you don’t know how. You’re willing to change but you don’t know where to start. Now you have to put in the work. You have to actively learn skills and strategies that enhance yourself and your relationship. One important skill is communication. The moment communication shuts down is when the expiration clock starts ticking. Where to start? Learn how to listen. Learn to get curious about the other person and wanting to hear their thoughts and feelings. Kindness is another useful skill. When we think kindly of our partner, we are less likely to jump into hurtful conclusions and more likely to genuinely hear their explanation. When we act kindly toward the other, we care about how we phrase things and how we come across so that we don’t hurt them. Where to start with kindness? Start with small offerings—caring gestures, volunteer to do things, pay a compliment.
Another thing to consider is the tricky balance between maintaining the relationship and maintaining self-respect. The former concerns itself with what the other person needs from you while the latter focuses on ensuring that your dignity is protected and intact. You both need to have a healthy relationship. Spouses that insist on staying with an abusive partner due to a belief that maintaining the relationship is best for the children ignore the fact that they are teaching them that self-respect does not matter. This, in fact, perpetuates the cycle of abuse, making children worse off. The question you should ask yourself in any relationship crisis is: Is there a way I can maintain this relationship without losing my self-respect? If so, work on it. If not, make a values-based decision. A relationship exists as long as both parties say it does. It’s how you live within it that matters.
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