Should we try to patch things up and make it work? Or, perhaps citing “irreconcilable differences,” opt for a separation and divorce?
Stay or go? Such a stark, black-and-white choice in a scenario characterised by multiple shades of grey. Does it feel too good to leave—but also too bad to stay?
There are push and pull factors on both sides of the ledger:
Stay: pull factors
• We like Europe and the Europeans, and they like us. The way you wear your hat, the way we sip our tea. We learn from each other. Our doors are always open to each other. We’ve known each other such a long time. We’ve been through such a lot. We work well together. We’ve more or less kept the peace for decades and our joint finances are successful. Let’s stay together.
Stay: push factors
• We don’t want to be alone. We’re deluding ourselves—we’ll be lost without you. The breakup will just be dreadful. All your friends will turn on us, along with some of ours. Our children will be taken away, and they will never forgive us. We’ll end up broke and disheveled, knocking on your door with a begging bowl. The day will come when we will ask ourselves: If you’re so clever, then why are you on your own tonight?
Should I stay or should I go now?
• We’ll be free without you. You’ve been holding us back all these years. Unshackled, a great deal of joy and energy will be released and we will surely do great things. We can become the person we have always wanted to be. And we can see other people! Already we’ve flirted with China, Brazil. It’s all very exciting! Unchain my heart.
Go: push factors
• For the xenophobes, anti-immigrant hysterics, little Englanders, Daily Mail readers, empire nostalgists and Social Darwinists, the decision is easy. They’ve never liked you, and never wanted anything to do with the arranged marriage. And they think they’re better than you—“we” are surely good, whereas “you” are surely bad, lazy, criminal, dirty, weak, perverted, bankrupt, corrupt, attracted to peculiar foods.
We don’t think those things, but we’re tired of being treated with contempt. We never get a say, our opinion doesn’t matter. We always have to compromise and do it your way. You are maxing out our joint credit card. You are too bossy, aggressive or passive-aggressive. You make the rules, we have to follow them. You’re just not very generous, and you're never going to change. And we’re just too different. We can still be friends, but if we stay married things will only get worse. Love will tear us apart.
The EU referendum is powerful metaphor for your more personal, intimate relationships, partnerships, marriages. Are you unhappy? Should you stay or should you go?
Again, there will be a tapestry of circumstances. Some push factors foreclose any other considerations, for example domestic abuse. Others can be big but not necessarily insurmountable, such as an affair or betrayal. And there are always pull factors keeping you together: your shared history, the convenience of the status quo, and, above all, children.
And how will it be on your own anyway? The stereotype is that women feel the immediate emotional impact of a break-up more than men, but long-term fare much better on their own than men do. A piece of research from 1972 suggests that marriage is bad for the mental health of women, which given the power dynamics of some very traditional marriages isn’t surprising, although later figures show no gender difference.
You imagine a glamorous bacherlorhood perhaps, free of obligation and duty, exploring all those things you wanted to do but never had the time. Maybe the reality is you are home alone in an indifferent world. There are no invitations to dinner or weekends away. Just you and the deafening sound of the phone not ringing. Who wants to be lonely? But maybe some loneliness would be good for you?
• Jannah Walshe recommends a clear-headed assessment of the relationship—not so much the other person—first alone and then together, with questions like these: Is this relationship serving us both or just the other person? Do I spend more time questioning whether the relationship is right or wrong than enjoying it? Is there more to learn for me in this relationship, or can I best learn and grow outside of this relationship? Would leaving this relationship be an act of self-care?
• Similarly, Bruce Derman Ph.D. offers 7 questions to ask if you’re thinking of divorce, starting with: Were you ever really married? Was there a time when you has an us, with reciprocal, mutual intimacy? Or have you always been a bit like flatmates who sometimes have sex?
• Take Relate’s relationship MOT quiz.
It’s good to talk
The best advice if you’re not happy is to return once again to a simple, four-letter-word: talk. It’s not easy, especially if one of the problems in the relationship to begin with was not talking.
• Relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman claims couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before speaking out. You will never get those six years back again.
• Belgium has the highest divorce rate in the world, 71 percent, and the second-highest suicide rate in Western Europe. These facts are often attributed to “binnenvetter”—a characteristic Flemish personality who bottles things up inside.
• It is so much easier to talk with a mediator, referee, coach, guide—a couples counsellor. Find one online or through organizations like Relate or the Tavistock Centre. In “Hold me tight,” Dr. Sue Johnson advocates “emotionally-focussed therapy”: “seven conversations for a lifetime of love” that explore and promote each partner’s emotional responsiveness to each other. “Emotion comes from a Latin word emovere, to move,” she writes. If a couple is going to reconnect, they have to “let their emotions move them into new ways of responding to each other.”
Tough decisions can be made with compassion
• In his book ”I love you but I’m not in love with you,” Andrew G. Marshall says “the ILYB conversation,” with 100 percent honesty, can lighten the path to a relationship renaissance—or to the exit sign. If the latter, the ILYB talk will help you to make sense of the breakup. Having a clear, truthful narrative about why the partnership ended is crucial to the mourning process—to be left, cheated on or suddenly “ghosted,” without explanation, can cause months and years of misery.
• Whether you stay or go, it’s never black and white, and you have some control over what the shades of grey look like. In “Rewriting the Rules,” Meg John Barker writes that you don’t have to follow the old stereotypical rom-com/sitcom rules of a break-up which dictate it’s completely over, there’s a good guy and a bad guy, and the former will never speak to the latter again. Relationships don’t end, says Barker, they change. Breaking up with someone with love and respect can spare a lot of pain all around.
Stay or go? Or something else? Perhaps if you listen, you might just hear the generous, loving voice of your own wisdom. It knows it's not all your fault. It knows it's not all your partner's fault, either. It has compassion for you both. It knows what to do. Trust it.
To partners past, present and future—to Europe—let’s give thanks, and be grateful. We had some really special times together, didn’t we? We’ll always be there for each other, on some level. Things die, love lives on.