Every day, we make choices. We pick Netflix or Hulu, paper or plastic, diet or caffeine-free. As consumers we constantly make choices to suit our needs. But when it comes to ending relationships, decision-making becomes much harder.
Ultimately, when choosing whether to remain in an unhappy relationship or take steps to leave, it’s important to determine whether you are making the choice out of a sense of love (for yourself, your children, even your spouse), or out of a sense of fear.
Most of our stress, anxiety, indecision, and doubt around making decisions is rooted in fear. We fear unknown outcomes, or we fear negative outcomes that we project might happen.
“Fear reactions always serve to dissociate us from our true and integral Self in the moment,” writes Canadian psychologist Phillippe Isler. “If we are—even just in our thoughts—engaged in fear, and trying to defend ourselves from negative outcomes, then the choices we make will be based in trying to protect ourselves from whatever it is we fear; they will not be grounded in hope, confidence, and faith; they will not be conducive to growth and thriving.”
Fear can keep you trapped in an illusion of “what ifs?” But fearing “the worst” can keep us stuck in an unhealthy situation. No relationship is perfect but living with the “devil you know” just because you fear being alone is a flawed rationale.
Fear of deprivation (being alone, impoverished, or lacking support) often motivates unhappy couples to stay together. Stepping outside that comfort zone of material possessions may be exactly what you need to realize what is really important to you.
Another fear that keeps many couples together long after the bloom is off the rose, is anxiety over how the children will respond to divorce. Although difficult to break the news of divorce to children, it does not mean they will be scarred for life. In fact, research indicates children in unhappy households fair far worse that children whose parents divorce and go onto create separate, loving homes.
Even if your fear is valid, making a decision based in fear limits your perspective. But how can you make courageous choices?
Isler suggests this mindful approach to making decisions. “Being mindful means being able to “sink down” below the turbulent surface of thoughts, projections, fears, and perceptions that all clamor for my attention when I have a decision to make,” he says. “It means having a still center from which I can then be aware of the quieter, and subtler, signals in my body, my heart … A sensation or feeling of opening, relaxing, warmth, moving toward, is a ‘Yes.’ A feeling or sensation of closing, hardening, pulling back, tensing is a ‘No.’”
Simply put: When considering a difficult choice, setting aside emotions and concentrating on the reality of the situation may yield the rational answer. If that resolution brings a sense of relief and peace, it is coming from a place of positive motivation. If that answer brings tension or anxiety, it is probably fueled by fear and negativity.
“When making your decisions becomes clearer, less stressful, and less conflicted, it makes your relationships with others a lot easier,” Isler says. “You let go of people pleasing, of guilt, of feeling like you have to explain yourself or even to compromise yourself and make decisions that aren’t right for you. Even if you have to deal with loss, you have regained something of yourself.”
It’s also important to remember that no dilemma has only two answers. There is always a third option. (And sometimes a fourth and fifth option, too!)
Ending your relationship may not be a matter of leaving or staying, of divorcing or remaining married. There may be other ways to reconcile your situation, such as separation, marriage counseling, mediation, or taking other steps to relieve your fears (such as getting a job or changing careers, becoming more involved in your community, or reconnecting with friends and family). Seeking guidance from a skilled family law attorney, therapist, and/or spiritual advisor can help you find greater objectivity and make the best decision for you and your future.