Why You Might Feel 'Stuck' In a Relationship — and How to Know When to End It
Relationships have their challenges, but they shouldn't feel like quicksand. If you get the sense you're slowly sinking into a union with no way out, then it's probably time to plan your exit strategy, says psychotherapist Xiaolu Jiang, Psy.D. Simply put, "it's a red flag if you feel like you can't leave," she adds.
Sometimes you can feel completely stuck in a relationship, and thanks to codependency, self-esteem issues, or family pressure, you may be struggling to leave a situation that isn't the healthiest or most fulfilling for you. Even if you've known your partner since kindergarten, have children together, or aren't the breadwinner, you should never feel trapped in any relationship.
If your partner is making you feel powerless and unable to leave for any reason, there is likely some kind of abuse present (whether physical, emotional, or even financial). If you believe this to be the case, "reach out to the nearest Domestic or Intimate Partner violence center," advises Brittany Johnson, L.M.H.C. (Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE .) These types of organizations "have people trained and dedicated to helping. If you don't have access to that [such as if your partner is monitoring your phone or internet use], begin looking at times that could be the safest to leave."
While physical abuse and domestic violence are very real, and frightening reasons many people feel trapped or scared to leave a relationship or their living situation, there are many non-violent factors that can "hold you hostage" in a relationship as well. This story will focus on the latter.
Take Stock of Your Specific Barriers
You will need to do some self-reflection to discover why you may be staying in a relationship you don't really want to be in, says licensed professional counselor Lanail Plummer. It's not about blaming yourself; it's about taking a deeper look at what's truly preventing you from getting out of the situation. "Although there are tangible and observable barriers that can prevent a person from ending a relationship [financial hardship, threats to you or loved ones, physical reliance on a caregiver], some of the biggest barriers are limitations that you place on yourself, via your thoughts and unhealthy emotional attachments," explains Plummer. This is where self-reflection can hopefully help identify these factors.
Some of these barriers can include catastrophizing (only focusing on the worst outcome of a breakup), black and white thinking, heaven's reward fallacy (thinking that sacrifice — in this case, staying in the relationship — will ultimately be rewarded), control fallacies (assuming all of the blame for the relationship's failure), and overgeneralizing (speculating that what happened in a past relationship will happen again), according to Plummer. These barriers lead to distorted thinking and a skewed outlook on your relationship, and may convince you to stay in an unfulfilling or unhealthy union even if you don't see it that way, she says.
"Although there are more thoughts and feelings that allow people to stay in overextended and/or unhealthy relationships, most people tend to vacillate between these experiences," says Plummer. You may feel reluctant to express concerns about your relationship with others. With that, you may be closed off or guarded about making emotional connections with others outside of your partner, and becoming isolated can make you feel more reluctant to leave, says Plummer. So, the cycle continues and the existing barriers become stronger. (Related: 8 Things You Do That Could Hurt Your Relationship)
If you've done some soul searching and want to leave a relationship you feel tied to, you can take steps to make the process less daunting.
How to Leave a Relationship If You Feel Stuck
No matter the circumstance, Plummer says she believes that you can always find a way out. Again, this isn't to blame anyone who has yet to leave; it serves as a reminder of your strength to make it happen if you choose to do so. Still, "it takes time, planning, intentionality, resources, and perseverance," she says. Taking these steps is a solid start.
Reflect On Your Own Feelings
"Addressing thoughts and correcting attachment styles is important [in order to leave a relationship you feel stuck in]," says Plummer. Attachment styles are the way you form connections with other people, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Some people may have an anxious-preoccupied attachment style, which means they may cling to a partner in hopes of finding a sense of security. Attachment styles form during childhood and are generally connected to how you were raised, according to the APA.
"The first step in empowerment is understanding that there is something to change, that there has been damage that created distortions or emotional challenges that created feelings of deficits or internal holes that align with a lack of self-worth," says Plummer. This is typically the most difficult step, but once it's complete the other steps seem more doable, she says. She encourages addressing these barriers in therapy.
Make a Plan
Ending a relationship with someone can feel a lot less stressful if, at the very least, you can figure everything out on paper. Map out the various breakup logistics that stress you out the most, whether that's finances, shared children or pets, recommends Johnson. This can make the separation feel more doable. Without a contingency plan, you may end up backing out of your decision to leave or returning after you do. (Related: The Psychology of Getting Back with an Ex, According to a Relationship Therapist)
Find Your Real Support System
Even if you're in an unhealthy situation and desire to leave the relationship, you may feel societal pressure to stick it out, according to Plummer. There's a general expectation that coupling up during adulthood is necessary for financial reasons, for starting a family, and for happiness, she says. "Therefore, it's quite common that family members project their ideas and wants onto another person, which can make it difficult for a person to leave a relationship." (See: Couple Privilege Is One Reason Why Being Single Sometimes Feels So Hard)
That is why it's important to have individuals you can trust in your corner as you prepare to leave a relationship and venture out on your own. "Identify the people who you trust that can help you if you need them," says Johnson. There's no room for judgment in this kind of situation, so find the people who will support you (whether emotionally, physically through shelter, or even financially if they can).
That said, if you are that shoulder for someone else in your life, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure you are helping your friend while also maintaining your own mental health and safety. (Related: How to Deal with the Changing Landscape of Your Friendships)
How to Support Someone Who Seems to Be Stuck In a Relationship
It can be overwhelming to consider how best to help someone in your life who feels like they can't leave a relationship. To start, "it's important to be clear on what you can handle," as this will be emotionally taxing for everyone involved, says Johnson. She also recommends not throwing yourself into action but instead being thoughtful about how you can best help. "Decide which type of support you can offer," she says. "Can you be the safe place they stay at, can you provide some financial support? It's important to be clear on what you can handle and plan accordingly." (Related: How to Set Boundaries with Anyone In Your Life)
"Trust they know how to take care of themselves, but gently push them to consider leaving" if you're worried or they express concerns, she says. But keep in mind that your friend may not react as you'd hope. They may get angry or defensive, or they may ultimately decide to remain (for the time being or forever) in the relationship.
"As an outsider, your natural inclination is to be direct and tough, which results in defensiveness from the person in the relationship," says Plummer. "They are defending their rationale, positioning, and decision to stay."
If this happens, it can be difficult to be unconditionally supportive since your friend may likely still lean on you to express future frustration or fear about their relationship, and there's never a guarantee they'll leave their partner, says Johnson. "It is helpful to also check your biased beliefs or judgments such as 'they should just leave' or 'how can they be so weak?'" In the end, the priority is supporting your friend or loved one's happiness and safety. (Related: 5 Ways to Support a Loved One Struggling with Depression)
And remember that no matter what someone tells you, you can never completely know what goes on behind closed doors or what kind of relationship dynamic is at play. What's more, your friend may not fully or clearly see what problems are present in their relationship. As a reminder, if you suspect your friend or loved one is in danger or you are in an abusive relationship yourself, reach out to your local police department or a national resource center such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE . While, as a supporter, this may seem like overstepping, when safety is concerned, you should never hesitate to ask for help.
Whether you're offering support to someone or thinking about ending a relationship yourself, keep in mind that a solid support system can make a difficult break-up easier.