Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of trouble
And by opposing end them.
Maybe it’s pretentious to start a relationship article with Shakespeare. Especially a quote from Hamlet, among the most tortured of lovers, when the quote isn’t strictly about relationships but about life and death itself.
But when it comes to the question of whether to stick it out in a relationship, or to walk away, it can feel like a choice between noble suffering and taking up arms against an unhealthy, unsustainable sea of trouble.
When we decide to commit to someone, we give them access to a huge part of our psyche: our hopes and dreams, our vulnerabilities and fears, our minds and bodies. When we choose to move through life with another person, the viability of the relationship is, in a very real sense, a question of life and death.
The question of whether to stay or go also invokes the Clash.
Darling you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
If you say that you are mine
I’ll be here ’til the end of time
So you got to let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
I’m not a huge fan of the possessive in relationships (you’re not his or hers or theirs as much as you belong to one another) but the question is valid. “Can I count on you?” If the answer is yes, he’ll commit, too, until the end of time.
This begs one of the foundational questions of whether a relationship is sustainable. It’s the question of commitment. John Gottman cites commitment as one of the weight-bearing walls of the Sound Relationship House. My favorite definition of commitment is “taking your partner with you wherever you go.”
It would be ridiculous to assume that commitment meant you were somehow physically inseparable. The metaphor of taking your partner wherever you go, however, is powerfully applicable. Imagine what it would be like to intentionally take your partner with you — if only subconsciously — wherever you went.
Would you go to the grocery store or the gym differently? Would you go to a bar differently? Would you relate to your friends differently? Would you relate to your co-workers differently?
The second weight bearing wall in the Sound Relationship House is trust. Gottman actually established a trust metric that he uses to discern how deeply partners are “in this together.” How much are they attuned to one another? When the metric is low, the relationship sustainability is naturally threatened. The key is paying attention.
How do you know when trust is low? A first sign is when one partner isn’t acknowledging and turning toward the bids of the other. We are, naturally, asking our partners for attention in all kinds of ways at all kinds of times. When one partner isn’t paying attention, trust is diminished. And as a consequence, partners stop relying on one another. Another sign is when one partner has more questions than answers. This might also be the “gut metric” but it results in one person guessing more than is necessary or healthy.
The fact that the character in the Clash song is asking the question over and over (can’t you hear it in your head right now: “Should I stay or should I go now?”) suggests that both the trust and commitment metrics are pretty low. Minimally, the two need to explore the question further.
Here again, Gottman provides a helpful rubric for discerning whether to stay or go. In his book What Makes Love Last?, he devotes an entire chapter to this very question. It’s notable that What Makes Love Last? is often considered Gottman’s “affairs” book, but it’s really his “betrayal” book. This is an important difference, mostly because couples don’t realize the presence and power of even small betrayals.
In the early pages he writes, “Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship — it is there even if the couple is unaware of it.” This observation is notable in that Gottman’s body of research seems to always include options — there are seven principles, four horsemen, and two kinds of marital conflict. And nothing is 100 percent — divorce is predicted with 91 percent accuracy, 35 percent of husbands are emotionally intelligent, and 70 percent of couples that have sex are unhappy with the frequency or quality of the sex. It’s pretty rare that he makes this sort of absolute declaration. But there it is.
Ultimately the question of whether to stay or go becomes apparent when betrayals have built up on top of one another to the point that it may be more painful to remain in the relationship than to exit. This question becomes much more clear in situations of domestic violence, unacknowledged/untreated addiction, and any other clear indication that your partner is not interested in working on the relationship. Obviously it’s still difficult to leave, but it may indeed be necessary. In the absence of these things, the choice is not easy.
So how do you know? Here are three considerations.
1. More me than we
Healthy relationships have a strong sense of “we-ness.” Does yours? Do you have a strong confidence that “we are in this together?” Or is your relationship more focused on how one partner’s needs take precedence over the other’s? Think about the stories you’re telling about the relationship. Is “I” more present than “we?” All relationships have conflict. And compromise is difficult. The unfortunate reality of compromise is that neither partner gets exactly what they want. But it’s important to pay attention to why compromise is difficult. If it’s because you (or your partner) is more focused on me, not we, you’re likely leaning toward “go.”
2. More chaos than glory
Let’s go back to the stories you’re telling about your relationship. Gottman calls this your Story of Us. He says, “Couples that describe their relationship history as chaotic are usually unhappy in the present.” How do you tell your Story of Us? Do you focus on the chaos, or can you expose the glory of your struggles? All couples go through hard times, but can you tell the difference between the wound and repair? If you can, are you able to describe how the struggle strengthened your commitment? If you, or your partner, are incapable of recognizing the deeper meaning of your hardships, you are likely leaning toward “go.”
3. More disappointment than satisfaction
It’s a simple question. When you lie in bed at night, thinking about your relationship, are you more disappointed than satisfied? Have your expectations for the relationship been met? Or are you disappointed that it isn’t what it promised to be? Happy couples can rest in knowing that even if it’s not perfect, it’s still worthy. It’s still salvageable. But if your eyes are trained on the disappointment of a promise unfulfilled, that’s all you’ll see. Except, of course, the flashing exit sign.
Alone, none of these considerations are necessarily signs that the relationship is over. But if all three are present, it may be time to acknowledge that the relationship naturally gravitate more toward “go” than “stay.” It can be easy to lose hope when this becomes clear. And it can feel like a death. It should feel like a death. Relationships matter. Moving through life together matters.
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