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Why Did You Get Back Together? Lessons In Love and Being Loved

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My therapist asked me a great question about a past relationship.

Why did you get back together after you broke up? What were the feelings and the motivations behind restarting a relationship that had become painful and frustrating?

I paused. I had easy answers. I knew the deeper answers were where the heart of the matter would be found.

She continued, “Because if we don’t understand what caused us to return to a dysfunctional relationship, we’ll just keep repeating the cycle over and over. So let’s slow down and look at why you restarted a relationship with someone who was having a hard time setting boundaries with others, and an even harder time making the connection with you a priority over several groups of people in her life.”

First the easy answers:

  • Sex was good. And having a relationship with nurturing and intimacy is one of my pillars of happiness.
  • I was lonely. I missed her. I missed the emotional rollercoaster. I figured 80/20 was good enough.
  • Because I believed she really loved me. She certainly said it all the time. I did feel loved.
  • I didn’t want to lose something that I had put so much time into. I didn’t want to start over. I didn’t want to suffer. I didn’t want to make her suffer.
  • I was afraid of conflict. And I’d rather be with her and in a conflict than alone and not in conflict.

And now a few of the harder answers:

  • I was feeling afraid. I could sense the depression creeping in, and knew that being with someone gave me a better chance of reemergence than being alone and isolated.
  • I was afraid I’d never find another loving relationship.
  • I was afraid that our good intimacy was the best I could expect, even if there were things that I was missing.
  • I wanted to contribute to her journey.
  • I wanted to support her struggle.
  • I wanted to help her with single parenting.
  • I wanted to be there for her, no matter what.

But “no matter what” was killing me inside. The misfires and disconnects were painful, sad, and made me feel less appreciated than I felt was appropriate. I wanted to be a top priority. After her kids, sure, but before her friends, or high school friends, or old nannies.

So, I came back. I reinvested in the WE and gave it a shot.

I was back for the nurturing and skin time. I was back for the inclusiveness and connection. I was there as a supportive partner in the parenting struggles. I was an enthusiastic and positive influence on her family.

I was also back for some selfish reasons. I was back for my physical needs. I was back because being alone was scarier than being in a less-than-stellar relationship. I was back because I liked having a hand to hold at night, and a lover to deliver coffee to in the mornings.

Updating My Experience

Today, I’m not sure I made the right choice. I’m sure that we are both working on it. I’m sure that the 80/20 percentage is still about right. And I’m learning, that the dysfunction is still present, still painful, and still unaddressed.

So let’s address it. Let’s go in with open arms and an open mind and ask for what I need. Ask for some boundaries to be cleaned up. Ask for some adjustments to be made. Ask for the WE to have some of the bandwidth when schedules and decisions are being made. I don’t want to be 2nd or 3rd on the priority list anymore. And for these changes to take place I’m going to have to get really clear and ask directly for what I need.

Then I have to let go of my expectations and allow her to adjust, reconfigure, or refuse to rejoin. I have to be willing to let her go, AGAIN.

In a call with a client last week, I heard myself saying something very familiar. “She may keep drinking and making bad decisions. The only thing you can control is your reaction to her behavior. And you can ask for what you need. And when things don’t adjust, you can leave. You may have to leave.”

And that’s good advice for me. The same enabling behaviors are happening and causing me pain. I’m asking for adjustments, changes, and compromises, and so far, nothing is changing. If she’s not willing to change or to make some concessions and commitments of her own, then I’m forced to ask myself if the relationship is worth it.

When contemplating a long-term relationship, unaddressed issues will not get fixed on their own. They will fester until one partner breaks either with anger or acting out. And if the issue has been around for more than 6 months you owe it to yourself and your partner to address it head-on. If you’re going to break up because of a disagreement or misalignment over these issues, you might as well break up now rather than two or three years down the road.

Clean up your issues as soon as you can find them. Make requests for changes or compromises. And when those requests continue to be denied, or the poor behavior continues to happen, then you’ve got a choice to make.

Should I stay or should I go?


John McElhenney
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