I have seen far too many couples who appear unable to free themselves of a terribly unhappy relationship. No matter how hard friends, family, or even therapists may try to help free them they remain stuck. I do realize that the description “terrible unhappy” is both relative and subjective, but that is part of the problem. For example, when I asked a female client whether she realized that her husband and father were abusive alcoholics she answered: “I do not think that my husband is nearly as bad as my father. And I used to think that every father in the neighborhood was like my dad.” Nevertheless, my aim is to offer some of the signs that indicate a certain relational paralysis and a few reasons for this.
1. If you feel chronically unhappy — A certain amount of strife is normal in your relationship but if you feel as if you are in a constant state of unhappiness it could be a sign of feeling trapped in something you do not want to be in.
2. If you are somaticizing — If you are converting emotional issues into physical symptoms you may be expressing feelings of anxiety or depression through your body. This may also be a sign that you are trapped in what you perceive as a scary or uncomfortable situation that you cannot free yourself from.
3. If you are under constant stress — A little fight now and then is healthy for a relationship but unfortunately for some couples fighting is a way of life. People who remain together but constantly fight prove to be incapable of resolving their issues together; they also demonstrate an intolerance to separation.
4. If you feel controlled by your partner — You know this couple dynamic: One partner controls the relationship and the other feels controlled. For example, you invite this couple to a diner party and the controlling partner decides not to go for any of a variety of illogical or irrational reasons. The controlled partner acquiesces for fear of retribution from the controlling partner. One might think that the controlling partner is “free,” but in fact he/she often claims to be the victim of external sources such as perceived unpleasant dinner guests, the timing of the party, the location of the party, or perhaps even the weather. The controlled partner claims to be the victim of the controlling partner but appears helpless to free oneself from his/her partner’s manipulative rule. Rarely do they have the courage to say: “Okay you can stay home. I’ll go without you.” This would be too risky for most and so the trap is set and sprung. I only offer this relatively mild example to make my point. I do recognize that there are certainly more destructive examples of relational paralysis such as those couples trapped in a sexless relationship or an emotionally or physically abusive one.
5. If you constantly fantasize about other potential partners — I am not necessarily referring to sexual fantasies. I am characterizing the man or woman who feels compelled to think what it would be like to be with someone else–a replacement for the person he/she is unhappily stuck with. I often say that when a man enters a room full of women with his partner and he cannot take his eyes off one or more of them, he is probably not so happy with the woman he is with.
6. If you feel lonely when you are with your partner — It is said that it is better to be alone than to be with someone and feel lonely. If you feel a certain void or emptiness when you are with your partner, it may be because one or both of you are not emotionally or physically connected. In other words, one or both of you are not present.
7. If you feel nothing more than an overdeveloped sense of obligation — If neither of you can admit that you no longer are “in love” or care enough to meet each other’s needs, you may be connected out of financial obligations or for the sake of the children. These relationships often resemble an awkward business arrangement.
Not all people are trapped because of a need to victimize oneself or others, or to pay off an emotional debt to their respective families of origin. There are several people stuck by a sick partner or child that they are justifiably committed to regardless of what they may have to sacrifice; a noble but sad situation. However, my interest is in those people who are caught in the web of a dysfunctional dynamic and are unable to free themselves and move on with their lives. These people are grounded in a pattern of unhealthy replication. Meaning, if you interview people who are stuck in a bad relationship most have witnessed this dynamic growing up; their parents may have been in effect, poor problem-solvers unable to escape their own misery.
You do not have to remain stuck in a miserable situation. There are viable ways out if only you would take the risk to search for and employ them. You may fail in your attempt to change, but most of the risk takers that I have encountered have eventually—with patience and perseverance—have created a better life for themselves.