Relationships can be a source of personal growth and shared satisfaction. Relationships bring out our best when we are thriving with one another. Even in times of trouble, when relationships are based on solid foundations and partners are committed to one another, relationships can be a source of strength and opportunity for mutual growth. At other times, relationships are destructive, causing more harm than good and presenting few opportunities for shared constructive change. Dysfunctional relationships are akin to an addiction.
People with insufficiently addressed developmental trauma may express interpersonal patterns that repeat internalized childhood experiences of abuse and neglect, co-creating a toxic situation (“irrelationship”) which holds both partners back. As with addictions, relationships like this are usually only helpful in as far as they overcome denial and dissociation, and are often characterized by anger, hurt and stagnant conflict. Getting to this sad and lonely tipping point forces us to recognize there are serious issues we have been ignoring, and may allow us to approach change in unfamiliar, ultimately constructive ways.
Even after seeing these patterns, it’s hard not to jump from one relationship into the next, practicing “serial monogamy”. Being single may even seem like a horrible, intolerable, even shameful place, to be avoided at all costs. It may seem impossible to forego romance and intimacy, and stick with friendship or leisurely courtship even. On the other hand, leaving someone we already have formed a bond with is very different from taking a break from relationships altogether. Whether there is something worth salvaging, the million dollar question, depends on what investments one has already made in the relationship, how compatible we are with our partners, and how likely it is in the longer-term to move into a healthy and fulfilling relationship.
People at times cannot tolerate being alone, even when it is a good idea. There are many reasons for this, related to childhood history, attachment style, habit, sexuality, and so on. People who can’t tolerate being alone are at times using relationships to “self-medicate” feelings of loneliness, unworthiness, fears of abandonment and rejection, depressive feelings, and related anxieties and worries. Being locked into relationships to manage such states of mind also leads to fighting which goes in circles without leading to accord or solutions. Here are ways how taking a break from dating can help us to sort through other issues so that when we get back in the saddle, there’s a chance of relationships going in better directions:
1. Relationships can be retraumatizing.
Aside from possibly being traumatizing in-and-of themselves, rough breakups trigger issues from prior breakups, and disappointing relationships going back even to childhood. The pattern of becoming close, feeling safe and hopeful, and then growing apart and experiencing pain, confusion and loss may be repeating patterns of intimacy and dysfunction formed in relation to our primary caregivers.
2. Dysfunctional relationships prevent personal growth.
Being caught up in the drama of dysfunctional relationships can distract from what is important, tying up our resources in futile efforts to achieve closeness with someone ill-suited. Too often, people get embroiled in desperate efforts to force a relationship to work when the fit is clearly very poor, or worse, sadomasochistic. Making heroic efforts to make such relationships work seems admirable on one level, yet such relationships are confusing and dismaying, and are not really about the triumph of love. Even in the absence of formal therapeutic efforts, being in a dysfunctional relationship can interfere with baseline resilience, and abstaining from typically frenzied dating efforts alone can help get life back on track. It can be hard to make good relationship choices especially when we are hoping on some level that a romantic relationship will solve our problems.
3. Relationships interfere with psychotherapy.
People who experienced issues with caregivers growing up often find it hard to recognize when we need help, and find it difficult to get help even when we seek it out. Unfortunately, therapy can get hijacked by relationship problems, distracting from the underlying issues. People tend to get stuck in blame. We can blame the other person, spending valuable time in therapy spinning about injustices, feeling victimized, debating who was right or wrong, trying to get the therapist to referee, and so on.
We can blame ourselves, using up psychotherapy sessions in self-recrimination and rumination rather than understanding what the underlying issues are, making connections on emotional levels, and preparing to make better decisions about dating before jumping right back into it. When this happens, it is possible to reflect on relationship struggles as they are unfolding, but often it’s better to take a time out from dating and seriously reflect on what has been happening—rather than pouring gasoline on the fire we are also trying to extinguish.
4. Relationships can keep us from doing what we really want to do.
Dysfunctional relationships can burn up time like nothing else. Relationship dysfunction can be all-consuming, occupying not just time but tying up cognitive and emotional resources, hijacking and undermining friendships, and creating obsessions and compulsions which interfere with work and other important personal pursuits. We can lose sight of our own basic needs, letting self-care fall by the wayside and forgetting what we wanted in the first place. Relationships can keep us from sorting out other important areas in life, interfering with career decisions and other major life changes. Taking a break from relationships when the time is right can clear a path for positive developments.
5. Letting ourselves get pulled into familiar relationships can prevent us from finding new relationships.
In the states of desperation and distraction common to dysfunctional relationships, we are not only unlikely to meet partners who are a good fit, but we are unlikely to recognize them when they are there. Instead, in survival mode, we make reflexive conditioned choices, tending to pick partners who seem different but end up being the same, falling back on what is familiar. Relationships can start out seeming so perfect, only to go south so fast.
If we are tied up in relationships which aren’t working, keeping promises we have made to partners who aren’t a good fit, we are not really available to others. Being in a relationship which is unhappy clouds judgment and creates unnecessary confusion, making it difficult to figure out if an alternative is a good choice and leading to paralysis or ill-advised, impulsive decisions. Taking the pressure off finding a relationship can make it possible to think about issues more clearly, approach relationships with the intention to thrive (rather than survive), and find someone who isn’t necessarily “perfect”, but with whom we can build and sustain desired relationships with over time.