Couples Counselling and Relationship ambivalence: Should you stay or should you leave?

And can couple counselling help in making this call?

To stay or to leave an unhappy relationship is one of the hardest decisions many of us have to make at various times in our adult lives. There is so much at stake, especially when there are children involved.

When a marriage or a relationship has been troubled or unhappy for some time it is inevitable that one or both partners may start to harbour serious thoughts about leaving. There will often be a period of intense internal contemplation, accompanied in many cases by long conversations with a confidant or with close friends.

When a partner has been going through this process without letting you know about his/her thoughts or  feelings regarding the relationship, it can come as a huge shock when finally the topic is raised. Suddenly a person’s world in thrown into disarray and the future seems highly uncertain and threatening. There is usually a feeling of intense hurt accompanied by a sense of the anticipated loss.

This is often the moment when couples decide to come in for counselling.

The partner who has initiated the conversation about a possible breakup of the relationship is often not yet sure about what he/she wants to do – whether they would like to try to save the relationship or if they would rather call it quits. This confusion invariably adds to the hurt and anxiety being experienced by the partner, who usually tries to push their partner for some clarity and some definite answers. However, in many instances the partner cannot comply as he/she is invariably experiencing a great deal of confusion and ambivalence regarding their feelings and about the possible future of the relationship.

So what is a couple to do in this type of situation?

In my couple counselling practice I often see the partners for individual sessions interspersed with couple counselling sessions to enable the partners to each work on the issues that are raised for them as a result of their relationship’s dynamics and problems.  

I often advise the “surprised” partner to try to refrain from bombarding their spouse with questions about his/her intentions, especially if no clear and consistent answers are forthcoming. Of course, this often leads to heightened anxiety and frustration which is worked through in the individual counselling.

The “disclosing” partner’s ambivalence and confusion is worked through individually as well. Once some clarity has been reached the partner’s discuss their progress and the way forward in a couple sessions. A decision is then reached (ideally) regarding whether or not they wish to give their relationship another try. If they do they usually elect to continue with couple counselling, if not, I often recommend mediation, especially if children are involved and I provide names of suitably qualified mediators.

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