One of the hardest spots partners can be in is stuck. Stuck is the place where a partner feels hopeless the relationship can change but fears leaving the relationship. Stuck is where fear and hopelessness collide.
While it is a very undesirable position, I think there can be a lot of value in feeling stuck. Sometimes, feeling stuck motivates us to deeply reflect and take the kinds of risks required for personal growth. And while there is value in feeling stuck, no one wants to stay stuck for long. Let’s talk about why you may feel stuck and how to get unstuck.
Why You Feel Stuck
There are so many good reasons partners get stuck.
- Good things. Feeling stuck often indicates there are good things in your relationship. Perhaps you created a beautiful family together. Perhaps you still have love and care for your partner despite all of the conflict, disconnection, and pain. Perhaps you have a friendship, but it is the lack of romance that leaves you feeling hopeless. Perhaps you have a long history together and it’s hard to imagine “throwing it all away.” Sometimes feeling stuck is an indicator that there are things about the relationship—this person, the family, or the life you have created together—that would be incredibly hard to give up.
- Fear. Fear is a common emotion when a partner considers ending the marriage. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being alone. Fear of the impact on the children. Fear that you are changing out one set of problems (conflict) for another set of problems (being alone). Fear of feeling incredible grief and loss. These fears are extremely valid. Often, they can keep a partner feeling stuck.
- Colliding values. Perhaps you value commitment/loyalty/marital vows and you value partnership/connection. If you aren’t getting partnership/connection, do you stay because of your loyalty/commitment? Perhaps you value not exposing your kids to an unhealthy model of marriage, but you also value your kids growing up with both parents in their home. So what to do if they aren’t seeing a healthy model, do you give up your value that they have both parents in their home? Which value “wins”?
Oftentimes, stuck is a reflection of your admirable values, your valid and very human fears, and your recognition of the good things in your history/life/relationship. Don’t be so hard on yourself for feeling stuck. Reflect on the good in you and your partner, your family, and the life you have built that is making it hard to walk away from, despite lots of pain. With all of that said, you likely don’t want to continue feeling stuck. So read on.
How to Get Unstuck
- Dig down deep into your values. You may have gotten some faulty messages along the way about what you should value. Maybe you were taught to value job success and have poured yourself into work. But doing so has led you to feel disconnected from your partner. This could be a great time to reflect on your loneliness and disconnection and reevaluate your values. Maybe prioritizing your relationship over your work could create a more connected relationship. Or, maybe may view divorce as failure, which could prevent you from ending a toxic relationship. You may benefit from reevaluating your view on divorce and rework it as a viable option and not a sign of failure.
- Challenge your thoughts. Getting unstuck takes challenging yourself on both sides of your stuckness. This means challenging your fear of leaving and/or your hopelessness that things won’t change. It can help to make a list of your fears of divorce and a list of your fears of what will stay the same if you stay. Talk through these fears with a trusted confidante who can help you challenge the thoughts that are keeping you stuck.
- Take risks to see if change is possible. Doing the same thing and getting the same result can lead to feeling stuck. What changes can you make that may in turn create change in your relationship? Seek counsel in this. Often, I find we have blind spots when it comes to ourselves. Seek close friends, a trusted family member, or a therapist to help you find your blind spot. Getting unstuck often involves finding these blind spots in ourselves and making intentional efforts to change them.
- Do trauma work. I won’t bore you with the scientific details, but oftentimes, stuckness is a result of childhood trauma. Humans are adaptive. If you experienced childhood trauma or neglect, you likely adapted in ways to keep yourself safe. Sometimes those incredibly adaptive ways to keep yourself safe as a child carry over into our adult relationships and cause disconnection. For example, if you learned to stuff your emotions because emotions were scary, unwelcome or shamed in your childhood, it may be hard to emotionally connect to your partner. There are amazingly effective trauma therapies that can help you find more effective strategies of coping with your past and moving forward. Feeling stuck can be an effective invitation to do your own work.
- Reframe your situation. Recognize that “stuck” is not stuck at all, but rather a viable choice. It’s a choice to stay (to prevent the negative outcomes you fear in leaving) and it’s a choice to keep the status quo (due to fears of the risks associated with change). Sometimes, status quo is a fine choice for now. So instead of feeling “stuck,” remind yourself that you have made your decision to stay in the current situation for reasons that are important to you, i.e., not wanting the kids to live in two separate homes, fearing that efforts at change could worsen the situation. Feel good about your choice you have made for valid reasons and put your energy into areas of your life that fill you with purpose and joy.
- Get support. If fear of change is paralyzing you, get support. Most, if not all of us, need support when we feel stuck. Someone to help us through our fears so that we can find the courage to take some hard steps. It’s way easier to do hard things with support.