Should I keep trying, or cut the cord?

Esther writes:

I have been with my partner for over 3 years. We still live separately because our kids are in different school districts. At this point, we see each other maybe twice a week and I am really okay with that. COVID has just made things worse. I feel like we don’t enjoy each other’s company as much as we used to. I love his family and he loves my kids and I hate to change that. Change is hard. I care for him very much. I feel like I am carrying the weight of this relationship. He refuses to do anything online – therapy, AA meetings, etc. I feel that he’s not doing these things to help himself and to help us. I have brought it up multiple times but he refuses. He never has food at his house when I come to stay over . . . I feel like he’s just inconsiderate of my feelings. He won’t watch movies I want to watch–he only wants to watch what he likes . . .

Do I just cut the cord or do I try something else? I have been very honest about things I’d like to see change and he just says “Let me know when I do something right.”

Dr. Chalmer answers:

Esther, you might want to check out the Couples Therapy in Seven Words podcast we did a few weeks ago, entitled “How Do I Know When to Call It Quits?” (There’s a similarly titled chapter in my book, too.) As you already know, it’s not an easy decision–if it were, you’d have already figured it out!

For starters, you need to decide if the problems you’re having are deal-breakers or growing pains. Deal-breakers are issues for which there is simply no solution–for example, if you absolutely want to stay where you are, and your partner absolutely wants to move far away. Or one of you is absolutely determined to have another child, the other is absolutely determined not to. There’s no solution to a deal-breaker that keeps you together unless one of you changes your mind.

From your letter, the problems you’re talking about aren’t inherently deal-breakers; they’re growing pains. In theory, the two of you could grow in some ways that would let you solve the problems. But you’ve been trying, and you’re clearly frustrated. So how do you decide what to do?

Well, let’s use the guidelines we talk about in the podcast.

First, don’t break up too soon. In other words, make sure you’ve learned what you need to learn from this experience. From your letter, you might already be at that point, but only you can decide.

Second, get hold of yourself–that is, accept that some anxiety comes with the territory, and tolerate it rather than freak out. Again, from your letter, it sounds like you’re thoughtful rather than reactive, which means you’re doing a good job of getting hold of yourself.

Our third guideline is the one that sounds to me like the most relevant one for you and your partner: Get to the right argument. If you’re unhappy with some things to the extent that you’re considering whether to cut the cord, you can tell your partner that, and be clear that avoiding the discussion is likely to be a deal-breaker for you (if that’s how you feel). Of course, you might want to enlist the help of a couples therapist to facilitate the conversation. If he’s unwilling to participate, maybe because it causes him too much anxiety, you’ll have to decide whether you’re okay with things as they are or not. He might not be able to face that anxiety unless he realizes that he either faces it, or loses you.

Good luck! Readers?

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