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Why We Stay in Unhappy Relationships

Erin: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hotter Than Ever, where we uncover the unconscious rules we've been following, we break those rules, and we find a new path to being freer, happier, sexier, and more honest with ourselves. I'm your host, Erin Keating.

Today I wanna talk about long-term marriages, long-term committed partnerships that may not be marriages, and why we stay in them when they aren't working.

I think there are a lot of reasons that we stay in relationships, especially after having accrued. Years and years together and all of that life and identity and institutional knowledge and offspring [00:01:00] that we build together with our partners. Why do we stay inside of those relationships when we are unhappy?

Not every long term partnership is unhappy. Not every marriage is unhappy. I am not a person who believes that. I see couples making it work all the time and I admire the shit out of that. I admire people who have found a partner who works for them, who feels like a real partner. I watch people supporting one another.

Admiring one another, complimenting one another, literally with compliments, and also the other kind of compliment where you're different and you do one thing and the other person does something else and it makes a beautiful whole. I see people getting each other through hard times, through illnesses, through parents aging and dying, through raising children with problems.

I see people navigating the ebb and flow of having conflict, [00:02:00] resolving conflict. Improving their dynamic and their communication, I see people who work really hard at it, I see people who seem to be effortless in their ability to stay connected and engaged and happy with one another. God, I love it when I see a family that acts like a unit, a couple that feels like a team. I love it when there are those couples who you see at Comic Con who are clearly both obsessed with whatever fandom they're obsessed with and they're wearing matching outfits or kinky people who find connection and eternal like renewal in their relationship through their own desires and exploration.

I have people in my life who have chosen to have more kids than I believe makes any kind of fucking sense, but because it makes sense inside their marriage, inside their partnership and inside their [00:03:00] desires as a couple, they built a big family together and do everything that they have to do to make that work.

I see couples who have money making it work. I see couples with no money making it work. There are people who are in open marriages. Everything can work. And it does for so many people. I'm envious of those couples where they look like best friends. They seem like best friends or their first loves from high school and they're each other's only love.

I am not anti romance. I am not anti marriage and partnership. I'm a big fan of people who can make these long term relationships work. And I'm not going to say that I'm a failure at it. I did my best. I did my best to stay and to be one of those couples that makes it to your 50th anniversary and everybody can't believe and wants to know what the special sauce is.[00:04:00]

I don't have those answers and I didn't have that marriage and I stayed in it much longer than I should have. If my own happiness was the only barometer of whether or not I should have stayed. I should have left long before I did, but that's not the only measure of why you would stay in a long term relationship that isn't optimal, right?

For me, I had a thousand reasons why I stayed. And I see people who have all kinds of very rational, very practical, very sensible reasons why they stay. I stayed because I still loved my husband and I thought... Well, if I have any love left for him, if I'm not totally repulsed at the sight of his face, if I have love in my heart and compassion and kindness and generosity left to give.

I should stay. [00:05:00] We have children. I should stay. I should keep trying to make it work. We can go to couples therapy one more time. We can really have those deep talks that make me feel like, okay, there's going to be change. We're going to get through to the other side of this. There is so much love here. I still love my husband, now ex husband.

I will always care for him. I will always care about him, but staying married to him. In the end, wasn't the right decision for me. One of the reasons that may be a little dark. That I stayed was because I thought he might be right about me. I thought his criticisms of me held a grain of truth. I thought I wasn't good at love.

I thought that I was too damaged by the way that love was modeled for me as a kid to really know what the fuck I was doing. I thought that what he said about my pathological need for independence, [00:06:00] my willfulness, my... Self centeredness, my workaholism, my, you know, whatever the litany of complaints it is that your partner has about you, that he might be right about all of those things.

And certainly there's a grain of truth in all of those critiques of me, but there was also a lot of distortion in the way that I was perceived. And a lot of distortion in my behavior, because I was twisting and turning myself in order to stay in a thing that wasn't working. I thought everyone has problems.

Every marriage has to have problems. Having problems is not the reason to leave a marriage. Having problems is having things to solve. So I thought to myself, well, we have problems, but everyone has problems and we can work on these things and we can improve. And the question is really, are those problems, problems you want, problems that you want to work on problems that you want to solve or try to solve, [00:07:00] or in my case, try endlessly to solve and not succeed at solving them.

But for a very long time, everyone has problems. Made sense to me as a reason to stay. I thought to myself, it's good enough. It's good enough. I don't know if I'll find better than this. This person has these attributes, these are the ways in which they're good, the ways in which they're a good partner for me, the ways in which they make sense on a cellular level for me, it's good enough, we can co exist, we can co exist, we can do our lives together, we don't have to feel all lovey-dovey all the time.

What was I willing to accept? As a baseline of happiness and love and well being in myself on a day to day basis, I told myself, it's good enough. Don't expect more. You're going to go out there in the world and you're going to go look for something else and you're not going to find anything [00:08:00] better than this because you are X, Y, Z fucked up in whatever way you're fucked up or those people don't exist or that's a fantasy and that's an ideal.

Live in reality. It's good enough. And that worked for me for a long time too. The operations, the logistics of life together with children, with careers. The notion of having to change every single thing, of having to dismantle this thing that we painstakingly, day by day, decision by decision, desire by desire, built this life that we built together, that is going to have to all change.

And the notion of that change and trying to generate that level of change in the middle of the momentum of our day to day lives, that felt impossible to me. For a really long time, especially when I was working 50, 60 hours a week, when I was trying to show up for the kids and [00:09:00] be a good mom, when I was trying to have the energy to be in a marriage, in a relationship that was very demanding, but not fulfilling for me.

But I was trying to please all the time in every way, in every situation. I was trying to make it work. And life has a really profound momentum, especially when you're in the cycle of work, when you're in the cycle of children and their school year and all of the holidays and the demands and the this and the that and time passing to slow that machine, to change that momentum, to harness it and put it in a totally different direction, to stop down that whole enterprise and start up again.

That felt impossible to me, even in the midst of my own unhappiness, even in the midst of. Moment to moment, feeling like I wasn't getting my needs met. It was good enough because the machine was [00:10:00] rolling and to stop it, to change it would have been too hard. It felt impossible. I felt like my life was set up for us to operate as a couple and a family unit.

I remember loving when the kids were in preschool and there were these other couples and they were going through the same thing and they had little kids and we had little kids and we would gather at endless birthday parties. Cut! Those birthday parties stop after preschool, or at least in my life they did. But in preschool there was a birthday party every fucking five minutes, and you'd be there commiserating with people who were in the same boat as you. And in my world, there were no single parents. The notion of being a single parent in that context seemed so alienating the notion of being a single mother, period was terrifying to me.

I was raised by a single mother with a custody relationship with my dad, where I was at his house on the weekends. And I [00:11:00] saw how much she compromised and how much the decisions in her life were because of me. In order to make us happy and successful as a family unit to make me a healthy, happy person in the world.

I saw that everything she did was for me and that she did everything alone and she had a supportive family, but I did not want that life. I did not want to be responsible for absolutely everything. I also think when you're in a community of couples and parents, if someone gets separated or divorced.

It's almost like people are afraid it's catching. I've seen this with myself and with my friends who were split up from their partners. The other moms in the metaphorical mom group look at you and go, Ooh, uh, I don't want that. That doesn't, uh, [00:12:00] I don't want to get divorced. I'm going to distance myself, whether consciously or unconsciously, or now we don't have that much in common.

We can't do things as two teams who come together to do team sports together. You know, I don't know how conscious it is. When I split from my ex, there were people who dropped out of my life. And I didn't want that. I didn't want to be rejected. I didn't want that kind of change. I think. When a marriage breaks up around that couple have an opportunity to reflect on their own marriages and sometimes that is an impetus for them to look at their own decision to stay, whether they are happy or unhappy. And if they are unhappy, it's really hard to look at somebody who's going, actually, I choose my own happiness. Actually, I choose my own wellbeing. Because what is on the line here? It's how [00:13:00] you want to feel in your everyday life, right?

How you want to feel in this one precious life that we get, how you want to be treated, what you want to do in life, who you want to be, who you want to be next to. Can you be that in your marriage? Can you be that in the relationship you're currently in? I want that for you so badly. I want you to be in a partnership that feels like it supports your every dream where there's a give and take, where there's understanding and compassion and kindness and partnership.

But if there isn't, and you're making a compromise to stay married and safe and maybe married and unhappy. And when I say married, I mean, in a committed long term partnership, I don't care about the conventions of whether you're actually married legally or not. Although the society certainly endorses The convention of marriage and the law and the tax code [00:14:00] advantages being married over not being married.

It is a way that the culture makers, the law makers, try to secure a certain kind of culture. If you're not married and happy, then the potential for a new life and new happiness, being a single person or finding a different partnership is out there for you, but leaving a partnership is going out on a limb.

And can be very lonely and can be very hard and it's not simple, it's not a simple decision to dismantle a thing that you believed in and that you committed to in front of your loved ones and also, especially if you have kids and I will say that as a child of divorce. My parents split when I was two [00:15:00] or three, and I'm a Gen Xer.

I was very different than the other kids who I went to school with because their parents were not divorced. And by the time we got to middle school, everybody's parents were divorced, or half of them, probably that's the stat, and I was like everybody's tween therapist because I had lived it since I was a really little kid.

So I understood how to navigate two different households, two different parents, two different lives, to which I was The only witness, I was the only witness to my life. My mother didn't know what my life was like with my dad. My dad didn't know what my life was like with my mom. Only I knew what it felt like to be in those two different conflicting and competing and disparate worlds and I did not want that for my children I did not want that for my children. I did not want to be a single mom. I did not want to be a divorced person [00:16:00] I did not want to raise my children alone, and I didn't want them to have to deal with divorce.

There was a particular moment when my kids were five, where it was a turning point, there was a big disruption and some real fucked up things happened. It was a moment when I thought I should leave. I should leave, but I had five year old twins and to be a single mom with a big career and being alone in Los Angeles with my family on the East Coast, I just thought, I can't do it. I can't do it. I'm going to keep trying. I'm going to keep trying, even though this is a clear moment to make this break.

I wasn't ready. I wasn't ready to take on. This whole other life, and I guess I'll say I probably wasn't unhappy enough because we grow at the speed of pain. [00:17:00] We grow at the speed of pain. When we feel pain, enough pain, then we change. And it's horrible, but it's true that maybe if you're in a really unhappy relationship and you can't leave, maybe you're just not in enough pain.

I don't wish that for you. I wish we could make decisions based on a rational calculus of our own happiness, our own wellbeing, and all the different factors that go into staying or leaving, choosing to stay and be with a person versus not be with a person. But for me, I guess I wasn't suffering enough.

And so I stayed and suffered some more. Another thing I told myself was sex isn't everything. And I remember a moment, a conversation I had with a dear friend, and I said, well, we haven't had sex in a long time. We really kind of don't. Sex is not really a part of our relationship. It's not part of our marriage. But you know, the fire [00:18:00] inevitably fades. That's totally normal. When you have kids, when you have little kids, when you're trying to juggle big, complicated, messy lives, like. Where's the room for sex? Who has room for sex? Like if you do, super, but so many marriages are completely functional and happy without sex.

And my friend said, which at the time I didn't register honestly, because what that meant was you're fucking lying to yourself. You're lying to yourself, I know you, I knew you before you were married, I knew how you felt about sex and how much you loved it before you were married, and now you're saying, oh, you don't need it.

Okay. Okay. Because another tricky thing that happens is your friends are not going to tell you the truth necessarily about what they see because they're in a [00:19:00] terrible bind if they do that. If they say, you should leave him and you don't leave him, then you're left with this friendship where you know they believe that you're doing something wrong in your life, that you're making choices that are making you unhappy.

And then if your friend doesn't say anything, you come out the other side and you go, why didn't you say anything? They can't win. And often the better choice is to stick around and love your friend and support your friend through the difficult thing that they're choosing to do, as opposed to trying to get them to change, because as we all know, you cannot get other people to change.

You can only change yourself, and maybe other people change around you as you change. That is the hope, is that as you evolve, the people in your life evolve in ways that are positive. But you can't make someone leave a marriage that you can see from the outside sucks, or that, or that you wouldn't want, or that is a decision, a choice that you wouldn't make for yourself, [00:20:00] or you think you wouldn't make for yourself. Because there are all these factors for why we stay.

Realistically, a lot of people stay in a marriage, for fear of financial instability. They stay because maybe they made a compromise when the kids were born. You would stay home with the kids for X number of years and your partner would be the breadwinner. What if you split up in the middle of that agreement and you have lost momentum in your career? And now you're a single parent and you're dependent on the other person for child support or alimony, if that still exists, that feels like a very 1950s thing, but spousal support. Oh my God, you're dependent on the very person who you're trying to get away from and disentangle from.

What the fuck? That's so Hard. That's so hard. That's such a terrible bind. People stay for security. Women are financially mobile in a way that we never have been [00:21:00] before, but there is a motherhood penalty when it comes to career and financial success. And that traps us in unhappy marriages a lot of the time.

Now, are you actually realistically trapped? I don't think anyone is actually realistically trapped on some fundamental level. You can always leave. You are responsible for your life. You are in charge of how you live it. But, there are real, practical realities that people face, that we all face. And no one can be faulted for staying in a thing when they feel like, well, it's not optimal for me emotionally, but like financially, how are we going to pay two rents?

How are we going to pay two mortgages? How are we going to double up on everything? That is a really hard dynamic.

Another reason people stay is because they love their partner's family, their friends, their [00:22:00] world, and they don't want to see all of that go away or be jeopardized. There's so many deep and meaningful reasons why we tell ourselves that just because we are unhappy, or just because certain aspects of the relationship don't work, that we should still stay and I don't fault anyone for that decision because I know how nuanced and complicated it is.

And also how much the society prizes coupledom and marriage and partnership and how much being a single person puts you outside of certain privileges and certain perceptions. And it is a big choice to say, all of these factors. Are legitimate and real and I'm still going to go, I'm still going to believe [00:23:00] that there is some other kind of life where I can stand on my own and look at my future and manifest the future that I want.

And be my own support system and lean into my family and friends and find a new way to be happy and do it or find a new partner who will stand next to me and look out at the future and manifest that future together that we both see I was at a wedding and the couple made their vows and they said, I want to stand by your side and see the future together.

And I thought, Huh, that's a way to do it. That's an interesting way to do it. Whereas I thought that what love and marriage was, and certainly what my husband told me, was that it was all about staring into each other's eyes and just loving each other so romantically, so deeply in a, in such a poetic way and what I want.

Is to stand next to someone [00:24:00] and enjoy the presence of them next to me and looking at our future, whether it's. short term or long term or whatever and liking what we both see together. So I'm not here to recommend you blow up your fucking marriage. I have no recommendations for anyone. I am not presuming to tell other people how to live their lives.

Your life is your life and you are in charge of it. How do you want to live it? You have choices. You deserve happiness. You deserve to be adored and you deserve to have incredible sex and you deserve to make all your dreams come true. And you deserve to be with someone who treats you with gentleness and kindness and respect.

And who you can communicate with, and who you can work through things with, and who will be there for you through thick and thin. We all deserve that. We all deserve it. [00:25:00] If you don't have that today, that's okay. You might have it tomorrow. It's up to what you decide. You deserve what you decide you want to do, and who you want to be, and how you want to feel.

I want you to feel so good in your own skin, so good in your own home, so good in the way that you're treated and you treat people. Life is short. Life is short. And you don't have to reach the pinnacle of suffering in order to make a change. Deep thoughts for the day. Friends.

Thanks for listening to Hotter Than Ever. If you enjoyed this episode and the things we talked about made sense to you or felt true to you or uncovered something you had subconsciously been thinking, God, I hope that happens. Please follow the show on whatever platform you're listening to right now.

Tell your friends about it and rate and review us [00:26:00] on Apple Podcasts.

Hotter Than Ever is produced by Erica Girard and PodKit Productions. Our associate producer is Lena Rebstein. Music is by Chris Keating with vocals by Issa Fernandez. Come back next week. We're going to keep getting deep.


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