How Long Should I Stay?
“How long should I stay?” is a question that I get sometimes in individual therapy clients and a little less frequently in couple therapy too. As a therapist, I can’t answer for the client but I do have ways of helping my clients answer the question for themselves.
This discernment tool is not designed for people who are in a relationship where there is domestic violence. When there is domestic violence deciding to when to leave includes how to leave as safely as possible. For those in my area looking for help with leaving a relationship with domestic violence I highly recommend the services of Next Door Solutions. Before clicking, make sure that your browser history is secure from being spied upon by your abuser. If you are coming to this blog from outside of the South San Francisco Bay area, I recommend contacting The National Domestic Violence Helpline. Yes, both resources will assist male victims of domestic violence.
But WAIT! Why would you help a client figure out when to leave?
Some relationship issues are tough to resolve. People can find it hard to wait for change to take place. They often face difficulties figuring out whether to keep waiting and sacrificing their happiness or to set more firm boundaries about the importance of getting their needs met. Going through a discernment like this can help them decide to stay with full effort without being afraid that it will last forever. Pretending they aren’t going through the discernment or telling them not to have those thoughts won’t stop them and won’t help.
I’m Staying Today. When Will I Choose Again?
My strategy is very simple. Instead of trying to figure out how long you should stay, you decide to stay today and set a concrete date at which to evaluate that decision again. To me, it doesn’t make a difference if that is tomorrow, next week, or a year from now. Most of my clients pick 3-6 months from now. Until the next discernment window stop yourself any time that you are thinking about leaving the relationship. Remind yourself that you’ve decided to stay and reevaluate that question on a specific date.
Once the discernment date arrives take time away from the relationship and by yourself to look back at the past period and ask yourself the following questions. Are things are changing for the better? Are you feeling more satisfied? Are the concerns resolved? How are you contributing to positive changes? Could you be any clearer about what changes you need from your partner? Are you sharing what you need without criticism? Do you have the energy left to push the decision to leave out another period of time? Are you done checking in with yourself because you are feeling confident about the relationship?
If necessary you set another date and time at which you will consider the question again.
Sometimes people object to this idea. They will say that doing a process like this they fear they’ll get 5 years from now and see that they have inched in 3 months increments into their future. I think it is great for them to know that is a risk. To avoid that risk, you only need to figure what you want to do at each periodic evaluation to avoid that possibility from coming about. Avoid blaming your partner for you not making a concrete decision sooner. Maybe you tell yourself, “I have been in this discernment for the past X months total .” Maybe you write out a dialogue between your selves like this:
- Me Today: Three months ago you were worried about just kicking the can down the road.
- Me Past: Yes, I was. I was afraid that when I got to be you, that I’d be bitter or angry that I’ve stayed in the relationship instead of leaving. How is it going?
- Me Today: Well, I wouldn’t say I’m bitter and angry but I do share your concerns about the future and how it will feel if I make the same commitment you did again today.
- Me Future: One thing you could do for me to make my discernment job easier is to get clearer about exactly what you need to see to feel like it would be worth going on again. That way I could be more firm and decide to leave rather than kicking the can down the road again.
I don’t’ recommend telling your partner that you have decided to stay “for now”, that you are in a discrete discernment period, or when that discernment period ends. I do recommend telling your partner exactly what your needs are, exactly what about the relationship isn’t meeting those needs, exactly what changes would meet your needs, and that without those needs being met you don’t know if the relationship will last.
Sometimes, when a client has used this tool, they set the time in the future and then decide to break up before the discernment period arrives. In those cases, the clear decision to wait is clarifying enough that they realize they can’t wait. I do invite them to concretely review their questions for discernment that they set up when they committed to staying for X amount of time more. However, much more often what I see is that clients come in at the end of their discernment and they are glad they were clear about the challenges and then waited because things are getting better.