Leaving with Love

When Steven and Beth arrived in my office for their first appointment, they were arguing as they stepped in the door.  Stephen was whispering that Beth was always late and that he was sick of her affecting his life.  Beth was accusing him right back, saying that if he helped once in a while she would have no problem being on time.

Once the session began, Beth confessed to being overwhelmed and confused by Stephen’s behaviour. He was constantly critical, often cutting and hurtful. He refused to cooperate around household chores, and he was contemptuous of any suggestions that they might do something social together.  He no longer smiled, hugged, or kissed her, let alone had sex with her.  When she asked what was wrong, he responded angrily, reciting a long list of her shortcomings and flaws.  Exasperated, frightened, and sad, Beth had begun to throw accusations right back at him, until it seemed all their interactions were acrimonious.

Stephen described the history of their marriage. They had met in 2nd year of university and dated until they graduated.  Neither had had other significant relationships and each was fairly naïve sexually.  Both were thrilled to have a companion to participate more fully in campus life.  They became active in a number of organizations but never lost their reliance on each other.  It seemed natural that their partnership should continue when they both found jobs in the project management field, and they married 6 months after they started work.

Eight years in, Stephen got an opportunity to work on a big corporate project with a different company and he was excited by the changes in his work life.  He got a big jump in pay, he was part of a dynamic and social team, and he travel frequently to visit different project sites.

Beth was happy for him although it meant that he was away about one week each month.    She continued in her job, which was mildly interesting and not too demanding.  She still felt dependent on Stephen to be her companion socially, and when he was away she tended to spend her time alone at home, reading, watching TV, working in the garden, and trying out new recipes.

Stephen meantime was gaining confidence and acquiring a taste for more independence, particularly revelling in the fun of a close group of colleagues on the road with a generous expense account.  It was about a year into his new job that his behaviour at home began to change.

When we scheduled separate sessions, I was able to question Stephen more closely. It turned out that on one of his trips away, he had felt the interest of an attractive and single consultant.  As he saw more of her on the project, their connection developed, and he found himself totally in love for the first time in his life.  Exhilarated as he was for himself, he was horrified at what it meant for his marriage.  He didn’t know what to do.  He hated the thought of hurting Beth, after all that she had done to help him in his life.  He realized, however, that he could not continue to live in his marriage, now that he knew what a true partnership could be.

In his confusion and fear, Stephen began to criticize Beth as a way of justifying his change of heart.  He buried the good feelings that he had towards her, and blew up her shortcomings in his own mind to gain momentum to leave.  He felt he had to remind her constantly that he was unhappy, hoping she would tell him to leave.   Failing that, he wanted her to know just how terrible life was with her so that she could not argue against him leaving.  His campaign had lasted a year when they came to see me, and Beth had failed to get the point.  Instead, Beth had become emotionally devastated: the person she trusted most turned on her and nearly destroyed her sense of self.  And now, with her anger and criticism of him, she was turning into a person that he did not like.

Stephen’s actions are not uncommon to anyone who finds him or herself in this situation.  People justify their change of heart by denigrating the other, making an iron-clad case for their unhappiness so that their decision to leave will be seen as the only option.  They feel extremely guilty.  They worry about being the agent of emotional pain.  They would prefer to be told to leave rather than make that decision themselves, believing that this reduces the suffering of the other person.  They worry about how others will see them, fearing the judgment and blame that friends and family direct at the one who leaves.  They assume that, in the eyes of others, particularly their partner, their happiness undermines the validity of any genuine discontent they might have had in the relationship.  In all this worry and anxiety, the easiest way out seems to be to blame the other, making his or her inadequacies the reason for leaving.  Unfortunately, this causes acute suffering,  often to both parties.

Beth was deeply hurt and began to hate Stephen for the damage he was inflicting on her.  Stephen, who had not wanted to hurt Beth at all, was now equally horrified that she was retaliating so strongly.  Although he secretly had the love and support of his new partner, he was still upset that Beth, who had been so sweet and appreciative of him, was now as contemptuous of him as he had been of her.  However, he couldn’t imagine how to conduct himself differently and still be able to leave.

Leaving with love is a new and difficult path to navigate.  The pitfalls are many but the rewards are huge. Leaving with love involves keeping the positive alive in a relationship at the same time it’s taking on a whole new configuration and meaning.

It begins with the leaver not criticizing his partner but trying to put reasons in a context of personal change.  This means not blaming the other but taking responsibility for choosing a new direction.  This involves some real soul searching to know what is shaping needs and choices that have changed over time with growth and learning.

In the natural unfolding of life we all begin to think for ourselves rather than simply following along with a set of expectations that were laid down for us.  It is not unreasonable that we would change our sense of self over the years.  At 25, many of us are still relatively unformed in terms of knowing ourselves, particularly if we have not taken the time to examine our lives.  We haven’t accumulated enough life experience to know much about the true workings of the world.  We are dependent on understanding the significant issues primarily from what others have told us.

The period from 25 to 35 is one of tremendous growth and learning.  Most people get a job, become involved in a significant love relationship, live with a partner, maybe get married and start a family.  Many of these parts of adult life have been romanticized, and 10 or 15 years in, we have a different outlook on what appeared to be such a good thing early on.  Some find that they have not picked a career that is well suited to their developing interests or needs.  Others find they have picked a companion who has not cultivated similar interests and has grown in a different direction.  Still others realize that they have chosen friends and partners at a time of low self-esteem and that they have outgrown these friends in aspiration, or ambition, or depth of interest.  Watching Saturday night hockey with the guys and a case of 24, which was perfection at one time, may no longer an activity of choice when the choices are expanded.

This is important information and it must be well understood and described so that both parties know what has changed.  It is not true that the choice was wrong when it was made, but it might not be right in the current circumstances.

Relationship cannot be a lifelong sentence to be lived out regardless of personal fulfillment and meaning.  Change is a reality of life and we will do better in the long run if we understand the reasons for the change.  This is the first step in leaving with love. Predictably, it is met with great distress and opposition.  At this point, the responsibility is more on the person leaving to stay calm and clear, and not to give in to retaliating when the accusations and emotional fallout are heaped upon him.  Any news of change is extremely threatening to the other, and the reaction is full of fear, usually taking the form of anger.

The best way to deal with the outbursts is to imagine one’s own reaction if the situation were reversed.  Keeping that front and centre helps one to find patience and compassion instead of anger at the horrible things being said.  Accusations and counter accusations create much of the terrible damage between a separating couple.  In the early stages of separation, calmness seems not to make any difference, or achieve any progress, but it keeps more damage from being done.  What happens at this early stage sets the tone for all that follows.   If it deteriorates at the beginning, it is unlikely to do anything but get worse as each side becomes more entrenched.  It is not necessary to destroy the other person in order to leave, no matter how badly they may be behaving at this early stage.

It’s important for the one doing the leaving to repeat the qualities and ways of being that he has valued in the other.  This may spark a violent outburst of anger or grief but it is really helpful to persist.  Conveying that the other is still valued, still special, and that the time together was important is both truthful and sustaining later on.  In response, the wounded partner may drip with anger and sarcasm about just how much he is valued or appreciated, but persistence helps the message get through.  One does not have to hate the other to leave.  The person left doesn’t want to be hurt and does want to believe in his own importance.   Behind the screaming, anger, tears, or withdrawal there is a deep need to believe that he is still special, still important to the other.  And, surprisingly, the person leaving also needs to know that he has value and that the time shared will always be important even though it has come to an end in this form.  This requires superhuman patience and compassion.

Anyone in this position needs to draw on all sources of mental and emotional strength and calm.  Even the reactions of others, who are giving form to their own anger and upset, can be extremely destabilizing.  Friends bring their own unresolved feelings to the situation and their support, which is well intentioned, is often loaded with emotional baggage which is confusing and detrimental.  Most will advise being more aggressive and less conciliatory.  Usually such actions will cause the situation to deteriorate even further.  Finding the grace and the wherewithal to remain calm and supportive, drawing on the finest part of yourself, is the best way through.

This does not preclude continuing to move forward with new plans.  Persistence with the changes that are necessary, while explaining as clearly and gently as possible (even when every word is hurled back) is the way through.    Even though the reassurances may be rejected, they are accumulating in the other and the leaver can know that he has done everything in his power to rework things in the best possible way with the very least amount of damage.  This is the leaver’s responsibility, and if he lives up to it then he can move forward knowing he has done the best he can.

Stephen, after understanding his unconscious motivation in being so harsh and critical with Beth, stopped. He did try to explain his changed perspective and new direction in life.  It was almost unbearable for Beth to hear and she found it extremely threatening.  Although she was really angry with Stephen for causing such a nightmare for her, deep down she began to realize that she had not taken responsibility for her own work life and used it as an impetus for her own personal growth.  She had neglected to take opportunities to increase her expertise and her self confidence, rationalizing this by saying that she preferred a simple life.  She was aware that she was envious of the changes and adventures Stephen was having.

As support, Stephen encouraged Beth to volunteer to be the social co-ordinator at work and promised that he would help her with this even when he was gone.  He reminded her of the qualities that had drawn him to her and pointed out how other people valued them as well.  Rather than damaging her self-esteem every day, he became her supporter and coach.  With his repetition and sincerity Beth started to recover some sense of herself, although she was still extremely afraid and angry.  She did reach out to others and volunteer for the position at work.  Although it was hard, she asked Stephen for advice and support as she became more involved.  Stephen gave her requests the utmost priority, and gradually their interactions became more friendly.  A real breakthrough came when Beth phoned Stephen to report that her event after work for the start of the summer had been described as the best ever.  She thanked him for helping her realize her potential in this area.

The difficulty between them is not completely over, but they’re returning to some of the easy rapport they had in the early years together.  Both feel relieved that they have managed to hold on to a recognition of how far they had come together during their marriage, and there is more acceptance on Beth’s part that it was time for them to head in new directions but with a friendship intact. Leaving with love isn’t easy, but it’s great to see them learning how it’s done.