When is it time to start over with someone new? Isn't your next relationship going to be better, simply because you've learned what to look for in a new partner? If you're considering ending your current relationship, how do you know you're making the right decision? Do you think you've tried it all to make things work? How do you know if you've truly "tried everything"? In today's episode, we'll explore how to make these important decisions, so that whatever you choose you can do it confidently. And like you might expect, the answer to those questions isn't quite as obvious as you might think.
As always, I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this episode and what revelations and questions it creates for you. Please join us in the Relationship Alive Community on Facebook to chat about it!
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Hello and welcome to another episode of Relationship Alive. This is your host, Neil Sattin. And thank you for joining me here, today, on episode 165. I hope that you took some time to listen to last week’s episode, with Guy Finley, on how you can dissolve conflict in your relationship, and learn the lessons that you’re meant to learn. Of course it’s all important or it wouldn’t be here on the show - but you’ll see why, in a moment, last week’s episode is particularly relevant.
So - I got a great question recently. It went something like this:
Dear Neil - I’m confused. Every time I hear of someone in a happier, better, more fulfilling relationship - it’s always their SECOND marriage. Are first marriages that aren’t working out just doomed to failure? Is the only way to get an exceptional relationship, where you’re thriving, to ditch the first person and find someone new? What’s missing in first relationships that people are getting in second relationships?
Like I said, a great question. I mean, here I am - right? Divorced. Happy in my second marriage. And I think that’s the danger, right? Of thinking that second marriages are amazing - they allow us to undo all of the mistakes that we made in marriage #1. Or if you’re not married, but in a relationship, when you’re having a tough time, or thinking that you’re going to just have to suffer in an unfulfilling situation, the allure of finding another person that will be better is right there, staring you in the face.
It’s an interesting twist on the age-old question of “Should I stay or should I go?” If people are so much happier during the next go-around, then what’s the point of sticking it out with this person?
So, I want to shine a little perspective on this - and give you some ways to think about your situation, and what the right thing to do is.
My first instinct here was to just bring up the statistic that while 50% or so of first marriages end in divorce - the number of second marriages that end in divorce is actually 60% - and 70% for third marriages! So while it’s tempting to see someone a year or two or three into a new relationship and think about how lucky they are - bear in mind that the chances are even worse for them that they’ll stay together. It’s possible that you’re seeing them early enough in their relationship that everything SEEMS to be better. All the nuisances of their old relationship aren’t here, because they managed to pick someone who didn’t have any of the dissatisfying traits that caused them to break up. But often it just takes a little time, and then the cracks in the perfection start to appear.
And when that happens you get to find out if this “second marriage” - or newer, better relationship, is truly going to stand the test of time. Actually, it’s often not right when that happens, but much later - because often we’ll wait months and months - years, even - before we decide that things have gotten bad enough that it’s time to leave. John Gottman’s statistic comes to mind, that it takes the average couple 6 years PAST when they should have gotten help to actually get help. Now I’m not sure if the Gottmans know exactly why that is - but at least part of that could be not wanting to believe that yet again another relationship is on its way towards destruction. Not being willing to see it until it’s too late. Or nearly so.
One place where you can potentially benefit from a new partner has to do with the selection process. There is that element, right?, of being on the lookout for specific traits in a new partner - top of the list that comes to mind for me is that a new partner with a growth mindset, and the ability to commit, might help improve your odds in relationship #2. This is of course if you also have a growth mindset and the ability to commit! In a moment, we’ll explore how you can dive a little deeper around this in your current relationship, before you decide that the grass is truly greener.
I will say that this whole journey has been REALLY interesting for me. There have actually been many times when I’ve wondered if I knew then what I know now, if my first marriage would have ended the way that it did. It’s tough to say - and because I respect the privacy of my ex, I’m not going to spend much time speculating about that right now. And, if we’re going to be completely honest here, my journey with Chloe has been part of what’s helped me learn all that I’ve learned. And, of course, it helps to be doing all the research for Relationship Alive, and having the conversations that I’m having, and working with clients from all over the world. It all fits together for me in a way that has helped me have a very different outlook on what’s possible.
Now am I saying that you need to start a podcast in order to get this all figured out? No. Am I saying that you need to get into a new relationship in order to figure out how to make it work with your current partner? No. I’m just trying to give you some perspective on where I’m coming from - but remember that my whole goal here is for you to be able to leverage my learning - so that you can leapfrog ahead in terms of what’s possible for you in your life, and in relationship. There’s enough heavy lifting for you to do in simply learning how to truly show up, and be courageous, and be vulnerable - all of that.
OK - let’s dive back in. We were talking about whether or not you should quit your current relationship to start up again with someone new. And I was trying to inspire, within you, a sense of what else might be possible. What I’d like to do, in this moment, is to give you hope. I realize that might not be the best thing. If you’re convinced that your current relationship is horrible, and that your current partner is NOT the right one for you, then hope might be the last thing you want or need.
You may not know this, but one of my first big hits, back when I was doing more blogging, was an article that I wrote about how to know when to leave a relationship. That article still gets a lot of traffic - at the time, I ended up doing a lot of coaching sessions with people who were commenting on it, or writing to me after reading it. And many times it would seem like the person really just was having trouble making the choice to leave - but they really wanted to leave - and so when I would hear about their situation, and, in the end, give them some ideas - what I thought were “empowering” ideas - to make things better, they would just come back around to the leaving. The escape from pain is a powerful thing.
This is perhaps the moment for the obligatory warning - if you are in a truly abusive relationship, then get out and get help. If you’re not sure if your relationship is abusive, then seek counseling, call a hotline, do something to try and get an objective opinion. And if you’ve determined that it is - get some space and safety for yourself and any children that might be involved. And from that place of having some space - and hopefully some sanity along with it - you can figure out if there’s any safe path to re-entry, after you’ve given some thought to whether or not there’s any reason to re-enter.
That all being said - when you’re in a relationship that has been going downhill for awhile, whether it’s been a long, slow decline - or a rapid descent - things can be pretty bad. You can be at each other all the time. Everything can feel like you’re on the verge of a fight. You can say mean things to each other. Without the skills to change the dynamics in a relationship that’s reached this point, there’s not a lot of hope. However, with some skills, and changing some communication patterns, it’s possible that you can actually make a big shift in the dynamic.
What it comes down to, here, are a few important questions:
Typically, it is helpful to choose a period of time during which you take the question of leaving off the table for yourself. This will definitely provoke the parts of you who want to leave (or who have already checked themselves out of the relationship) and you’ll probably have your hands at least partly full with trying to help those parts of you chill out about your renewed commitment to the relationship. But the only way that you’re going to truly find out what’s possible is to stop your threats of leaving and escape from jeopardizing either the safety of the relationship for your partner, or your willingness to make different, sometimes difficult, choices to act differently. Act differently, get different results.
At some point you might need to ask yourself the question to assess whether or not your partner is willing to change. If things have really come to a head, then this might also be the time to demand - ok, politely insist - that your partner get some help with you - either coaching, or a counselor, or a retreat, or a course - you get the picture. It’s best if you can involve them, somehow, in the process of actually seeing the dynamic of your relationship for what it is - ie. something that’s not quite working right - and to see the benefit of owning their own part in it - just like YOU’RE doing, right?
If you can get your partner to come to the table, then that will help you shift course more quickly. Because you can find ways to collaborate - after all, in most situations it’s in BOTH of your best interests to be working together on the project of improving your relationship. More joy and connection for everyone that way! But if they don’t come to the table right away, don’t despair - as you’ve heard many times on this show, there are all kinds of ways that you can create change and shifts within yourself and in the way that you show up in your relationship. And this, will in turn, create change in your relationship.
When you’ve been with someone, then you’re actually in some ways at an advantage. Do you know them well enough to know what motivates them? What would motivate your partner to want to come to the table? What would be their biggest complaint about you? What is their biggest desire? How can you show your partner that they matter to you in a way that will make a difference to them? Are there ways that you have been ignoring problems that they’ve been trying to bring up with you? Are there ways that you could show them the connection between what they want in your relationship and what you want?
What are some other questions that would help you access what you’ve learned in all of your time with this person? Do you like how I did that? I asked you a question to help you generate more questions!
Finally, let’s revisit the question of a timeline. As you might recall, I was mentioned taking “leaving” off the table. By the way, this is true whether or not you’re the one who’s thinking about leaving. If your partner is thinking about leaving, you can still make the decision one way or another that YOU will be committed to the relationship, to seeing what changes you can effect on your own or in collaboration. It can sometimes be surprising to see just how many ways that we are not fully embodying our commitment to the relationship - even when we think that we’re a solid “yes” we could still have exits and escape routes all over the place. Especially when there’s pain going on your relationship - those are the times that’s most challenging to stay present. And, again, it’s the ability to stay present during those times that will help you face whatever is truly happening, and be in a position to do something about it.
When you get to the end of the time limit that you’ve set for yourself, it’s time to reassess. How are things going? Have they gotten better? Are there cracks of light showing in the darkness? And what steps have you taken during that time? Did you make definite changes in your behavior? In your outlook? Did you get help? What worked, and what didn’t? It’s just as important to keep track of the attempts that went nowhere as it is to keep track of your successes and build on them.
In an ideal world, if you truly decide that it’s time to part ways, then my sincere hope is that you and your partner can come to that decision together, and figure out ways to part that allow you to stay kind to each other. It’s not always possible, but it certainly makes parting a whole lot easier - not only on the two of you, but also to the others impacted by your decisions. The rest of your family, your extended family, friends, and community. But as you’ll see, there’s actually plenty of time for you to experiment before you get to that point. And along the way you’ll learn a lot, grow a lot, and - if you decide to try again with someone else - you’ll truly have new ground to cover, vs. having to learn the lessons that you SHOULD have learned in this relationship. See - it’s a win-win.