As I dutifully set my clock ahead this morning, I started thinking about the precious time it takes to work on a destructive relationship. When we change our clocks forward at daylight savings, we give up a little time knowing that we’ll get that hour back later. As we explore the pros and cons of giving a destructive partner time to change we need to remember that whatever time we give, we’re not getting it back later.
There can sometimes be advantages to giving your partner time to change.
*You might use the time to construct a plan of exiting as safely as possible, with as many sound emotional and financial resources as possible—this is especially important if your partner is violent or threatening, or has indicated that he will get financial revenge on you if you leave him.
*With a dangerous partner, you might use the time to hope that he is the one he loses interest in you so that he is the one to leave you, which can be safer.
Giving your partner your time…
… might give you the space to become very clear about what is happening; going through repeated patterns can give you the opportunity to identify them, prepare yourself emotionally for them, and see the range of his abilities.
…can allow you to manage major life transitions, such as caring for infants or very small children, or dealing with a relative’s sickness and death, with fewer disruptions than leaving might entail.
…can allow you to articulate for yourself what exactly your “deal breakers” are so that you are more prepared to insist upon change, and to reinstate for yourself your standards and your clarity.
…when safety is not an issue, can allow you to detach yourself from the intense care and responsibility for him, and reestablish yourself as a priority, even while in the relationship.
…can assuage the voices in you that say, “What if…” or “I have to…” These voices can’t be heard and these expectations met until you can meet them squarely and feel confident in your conclusions.
… if things are noticeably improving, can connect you to the love, hope, and expansive feelings you felt when you first met.
… if things are noticeably improving, can afford you some of the acknowledgment and healing that you desire and deserve.
…can help you feel certain of yourself as a person who has tried everything, who is committed to relationships, who believes in giving people a chance.
… can give your children a chance to be in an intact family. (Of course, the costs can quickly turn too high for you, and for your children also, so be alert to when the costs start to outweigh the benefits.)
…can spare you the pressures of having to go through finding a new partner and building a new life.
Let’s look at the costs of standing by a destructive partner.
*Your natural sense of hope and resilience may be wounded. Giving so much loving attention to your partner without much return is like a slow leak in your energy reserve tank; hope for a life filled with love can fade, to be replaced by a desperate longing for love and connection.
*You might lose sight of your own set of standards in the relationship, compromising even your basic emotional needs because you are so busy sorting through and managing your partner’s dramatic ups and downs, with only short periods of rest in between. With all that work at hand, you have been pulled away from addressing what you actually want in your relationship. The standard becomes “He’s not as bad as he was,” or perhaps even, “It doesn’t devastate me the way it used to.”
*You might lose your sense of joy and creativity, for all the reasons we have just been describing. Expressing your vision is the core of creativity. You must have an audience that is receptive in some way, even if it is an inner audience. When you have internalized the destructive audience, you become bound up by a sense of rejection. You feel stopped before you even start.
*You may miss opportunities for yourself, and lose out on necessary personal changes because you are no longer attuned to your inner signals regarding your own needs and desires, as you have become so outwardly focused.
*You might have a confused sense of what the real signals of change are, since you have been promised changes for such a long period and they never materialize. His promises might be honest and heartfelt, but he lacks any real grasp of what it takes to overcome the profound issues and wounds that he faces. It’s easy to misinterpret these honest pledges as being changes themselves. And your confusion can be compounded if he keeps making changes but they rapidly fade way each time, or he makes small changes, but they aren’t nearly enough.
*You might have an inaccurate sense of who you are, because your partner so often responds to you in ways that don’t at all fit with what you are actually giving, saying, or doing. Being in a relationship with someone whose perceptions are so distorted can start to throw your own vision out of whack. It’s like looking too long into a funhouse mirror. You can’t have an accurate reflection of yourself back.
*You might have a growing fear of being ‘alone’ from him telling you that you are unlovable, unworthy and inadequate. The prospect of bring without a partner takes on a new meaning when you are in a destructive relationship, because you are already longing for intimacy, and may already be isolated as well. From inside the relationship, it seems that life without him would be even more painful than the situation you are in. (In reality, once the traumatic bond dissolves significantly and your life is filled with other loving connections, including to yourself, being alone can be filled with joy and renewal. You could rediscover who you are as loving, worthy and invaluable. Your possibilities for partnership could open.)
*You might not be the friend you want to be to others, because you have so little time to devote to your friendships.
*You may have a sense of frustration and impatience in your dealings with people, because you feel not known and not seen, and feel that your generous sharing of your life and time is not being acknowledged for what it is worth. You might be irritable and short from having been attacked over such a long period of time that you no longer have a place of rest from which you navigate the sometimes frustrating world. You might become intolerant of people disagreeing with your opinions because you’ve had to live with so much devaluing of your thinking that your value as a person seems like it is at stake.
*If your partner is self-destructive, giving him your time might increase your sense of obligation to him. If his style is to be less self-destructive for certain periods by channeling his unhealthy energy toward harming you, you may feel that you have to sacrifice yourself. Sacrificing yourself may seem less painful in the short term when you can ward off, temporarily, the self-destruction of someone you love. The longer you are with the partner, the longer you have the sense that you are keeping him going. But the reality is that you are both actually sinking; he may be sinking more slowly than he would without you, but you are both sinking nonetheless.
*The longer you stay, the harder it may be to find support from people around you when the time comes that you do feel ready to talk to other people about how this relationship is dragging you down. You may have had many reasons not reveal what was happening: you were afraid of how he would react if he found out what you said; you wanted to figure out more yourself first because you don’t know what it all means and where it is going; you didn’t feel that you could open up about the hours of arguments or the scary threats. It’s tempting to just say you are ‘fine’ and move as best as you can throughout your day with incredible (and unnoticed) strength.