In the past I’ve written about relationship doubt and some of the things that can cause it. Broken trust, anxiety issues, a belief that there may be someone out there who is *better* for you; all of these things can cause doubts.
Doubt is understandable but it’s also very dangerous, as belief is tied to effort. At both a conscious or an unconscious level, the more someone doubts the less they put INTO the relationship. As a result, if doubt is not dealt with it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, destroying the relationships.
In this post I want to look not only at the person having doubts, but also how it impacts the other person in the relationship.
If someone is having doubts about whether or not they really want their relationship or if it is the right one for them, there are a few things to think about.
First is the nature of the relationship. It’s one thing to have doubts if you are casually dating, as those doubts are part of determining if it’s a relationship you actually want to commit to. Once you have committed, things change a bit; and if you are living together, married, and/or have kids together then the complexity of the situation increases significantly.
Even in complex situations it is important to remember that a relationship involves two people.
If you are having doubts, you owe it to your partner to be honest with them. Any problem or doubts you have affect them too – they NEED to know about it and they need to have an opportunity to be part of any solution.
I can understand the idea that sometimes we want to keep our thoughts to ourselves, especially when periods of doubt can be times when we don’t even really know what’s going on in our own heads.
However it’s pretty common to hear stories where one person thought that things were going pretty well, until one day they find out their partner has decided they want a divorce and they have already made up their mind.
To me, that should never, EVER happen. Relationships are based on communication. No one should ever be blindsided by these types of things. If there is a problem, they have a right to know about it, and to at least have an opportunity to try and work on things; instead of being faced with a position where by the time they know it’s too late.
When someone doesn’t share their doubts, those doubts tend to grow and deepen. And when that happens a distance will form, as the person with the doubts will naturally tend to withdraw and detach themselves from the relationship.
Some people may claim that their partner knew there were issues. They had to, because they obviously saw the changes in behavior.
Well yeah, maybe. I’m sure they did know something was up. But unless it was communicated to them they had no way of understanding the severity of the doubt. Relationships go through ups and downs all the time, frequently someone thinks they are just going through a down time – and then one day they wake up to find they are facing a divorce they never saw coming.
Time to Figure Things Out
Relationships change, things happen, and sometimes people question whether the life they have is really the one they want. When it happens it sucks for everyone involved, but it’s part of life.
And when this happens, the person with doubts often wants some time and space to “figure things out”. I get that. It’s understandable that they can’t be fully engaged in a relationship if they aren’t sure they want it anymore. And depending on the source of those doubts, I think most people’s partners will try to be understanding and give them a bit of time.
Here’s the problem though – a (committed) relationship isn’t a part time gig. It’s not the sort of thing where you can just take a sabbatical, and come back when/if you decide that yeah, you are actually committed to it.
There has to be some empathy and understanding on both sides, but people need to find a way to continue the relationship even during this time.
If they can’t? If they really need to “take a break”?
In my mind, that is what separation is for.
It is completely unfair and selfish for someone to expect to be able to “stay” in the relationship that they aren’t committed to it anymore. People can’t just pick and choose the parts they feel like dealing with (usually the security of home, and family) while checking out on the parts they don’t want to deal with (usually emotional and physical intimacy).
To the best of their ability they need to find a way to do both.
In these situations the person with the doubts often wants time to figure things out in their own way, at their own pace. They want their partner to give them time and space with no pressure. To wait for them.
In a way there is something romantic about the notion of waiting for someone.
It brings to mind stories of WWII, where soldiers would go off to war and their girlfriends would promise to wait for them. And the joy they would have when they were finally reunited.
This is different though.
In those cases the relationship was separated by circumstance; and the person waiting believed they would be coming back.
In the case of someone having doubts, why should the other person wait? They are essentially being told that the person they love is “no longer sure if they want to be with them”.
Think about that for a moment.
No longer sure.
So they love someone and have committed to them, but that person isn’t sure they want things anymore. Instead of being committed to getting through anything together, the person they love sees them as simply an option – not a priority.
Yet they are expected to just put their life on hold and wait, in the hopes that maybe their partner will continue to choose them.
And if they don’t?
Then that time spent waiting was time wasted. Time of their life they will never get back.
You Can Never Go Home Again
Doubts happen, and as noted there can be all sorts of reasons that aren’t even directly related to the relationship. Identity issues, depression, anxiety – all of these can cause doubt. And sometimes those doubts will never go away.
But you need to identify the real cause of the doubt and actively fight back against it. Because when someone checks out of a relationship because of those doubts they fundamentally alter the relationship forever.
Once you have been made to feel like an option, things are never the same again. They can still be good, or even great. But that magic of knowing that you will always be there for each other no matter what life throws at you?
Once that has been broken it’s gone forever.
I recently read a blog written by someone who’s partner had checked out on the relationship, and he wasn’t sure what to do. One of the commenters told him that he should use this time to show his wife how much he loves her, because (in her words) “women like to be chased”.
Sorry, I can’t disagree with this more.
Maybe he had been taking his partner for granted and that was contributing to her doubts. If so, and those doubts made him realize he had been taking them her for granted (sadly something that is natural in relationships), that’s one thing. Then he should use this as a wake up call, and adjust his behavior appropriately.
We all want to feel valued, and appreciated (that applies to women and men). But “chasing” accomplishes nothing. Someone has to be there because they want to be there – not because they like the thrill of being chased.
It’s like an addict chasing the next high. If someone is only there when they are being chased, how long will it be until they check out and are gone again?
No, if someone needs that thrill and that rush, then I would say let them go.
All sorts of things can cause doubt, and at times they can be crushing. But if you are in a relationship the worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself.
It may seem like a deeply personal thing but it doesn’t just affect one person, so both people have to be involved. The doubts may originate with one person, but both people need to be part of the solution.
Doubt can destroy relationships but it doesn’t have to. In fact love can be strongest when it can accept those doubts and continue to thrive in spite of them.
17 thoughts on “Sorting Things Out”
Great post as always. This is a hard one.
I spent a lot of the past nine months feeling very doubtful about my commitment to our marriage of 35 years. In a nutshell, I think it was mostly caused by realizing that we had been fundamentally disconnected for a decade and feeling that my wife wasn’t really stepping up on her side of the marriage.
At various times I really thought I’d communicated my reduced level of commitment, only to find out this summer that I had not, in fact, clearly communicated that. So there’s a lesson there: even if you think you’ve been clear, you might not have been – a lesson that applies to everything from “I’d rather not have Chinese food tonight” to “I’m not sure I want to stay married to you.”
I realized that I had to figure out a way to get back into commitment if we were going to stay married, but it’s hard. You have let the genie out of the lamp – how do you get the genie back in? I really don’t have any answer. I think I have basically gotten there, but I’m not entirely sure how. I think it was a gradual combination of (1) really dramatic improvements on both sides in how we communicate – much more open and honest but trying to avoid making the other feel judged and not taking things we heard personally, (2) greater demonstrations of love, in my terms, by my wife, (3) greater confidence on my part about my wife’s desire to make things better for both of us, and (4) greater confidence in the changes I have made and think I can continue to make in my life. So…basically a lot of things coming together or at least moving in the right direction at the same time.
But is it true you can never go back? I don’t know about that. Was it ever true that your commitment, or your partner’s, was absolute? And what were you committing yourself to when you were 20-something? What was your spouse committing themselves to? Among other things, in my mind – and maybe other people feel differently – there’s a long-ish list of things that would probably end a marriage, and if that’s true, then doesn’t that mean that the commitment was something other than absolute? Maybe these things wouldn’t be instant, automatic terminators, but you’d want to see serious action promptly: drug or alcohol abuse, criminal activity, gambling that has significant negative financial impacts, adultery (at least if ongoing and unrepentant), physical abuse…and those are just the easy ones. Anyway…even if none of those are present, what is the nature of our commitment? And if we change over a decade or two or three, and our partners change as well, is it realistic to expect that ideas about commitment and deal breakers won’t change, too? That’s a question, not an assertion. I’m sort of rambling here…
Can you never go back? What are you going back to? Was it ever really there? Don’t we make the choice to be committed every day? If you can’t leave, how much does staying mean? Isn’t it, maybe, more amazing to have someone say “I had my doubts about the commitment I thought I was making when I was 20-something, but my 50-something self has reassessed our marriage, and the “me” who I am today wants, today, to be married to the “you” that you are now. I think that’s actually much more reassuring.
Thinking out loud here. May have more to say… 😉
LikeLiked by 3 people
Hi Jack, great to hear from you. And I’ve got to say it’s great to see that your tone and outlook on your marriage seems to have become increasingly positive over time.
I just want to touch on a couple of the points you’ve made:
first, you mention thinking you had communicated a reduced level of commitment and your wife not seeing it the same way. I think this happens all the time. We only know what is going on in “our” head, and this is at the root of MANY issues between couples. The whole “I told you this”/”no you didn’t”. Often we believe we have conveyed a message clearly, and to us we have. But in reality we haven’t. This is where I think active listening is really important – talking, and following it up with someone reiterating things back to you in their own terms so you know nothing is lost in the translation. It’s something we should all do (at least for important things), but we don’t. So we end up getting our feelings hurt, and over time that grows into resentment, which grows into apathy. And it’s all started with a misunderstanding. Sad.
You mention that when you have let the genie out of the lamp it’s really hard to figure out how to get it back in. I think if you could come up with a fool proof plan for doing that, you would be able to package it up and sell it, and be a very rich man. Because MANY people struggle with that. I have my own basic rules, or “keys” to a successful relationship (https://thezombieshuffle.com/2015/12/08/3-keys-to-a-successful-relationship/). Love each other (actively), communicate, and don’t be selfish. I think if we all made a point of doing these things every day there would be a lot more happy marriages out there. But we stop loving one another actively, and then we’re hurt so we stop communicating, and then we become increasingly selfish. Hard to turn around, and it requires a lot of dedication on both parts.
As for never going back, it’s the magic I’m talking about. The naive innocence. Not sure if you followed the link (it’s one of my most personal posts, and a personal favorite), but yeah, once that is gone I don’t think you can get that back. Not saying the relationship can’t still be good, or even great. And really, in some ways maybe it’s a good thing when that innocence is gone and you realize just how vulnerable a relationship can be. At the same time, I have to say that I miss that certainty – even if (as you put it) it was certainty of something that wasn’t really there.
Drew – Just wanted to comment briefly that yes, I’ve read the post you linked to, and I empathize…but I think there’s nothing really to do about it, partly because it may have been an illusion (a delightful one) and partly because it may have been a unilateral vision of the relationship and partly because, as we all experience over time but I think relatively few people really attempt to understand and grow from, life brings its knocks and dings and bruises and even breaks.
I have somethings thought about this using my own physical history as a metaphor. Example: for decades playing the guitar was nearly everything to me. In a microsecond of inattention using a power tool, I took off part of one of the fingers on my left hand. I haven’t really been able to play since the accident. That will never be the same and it hurts to lose that. Music is really important to me and eventually I found that I could play the mandolin, so I have my music back, but it’s different. I don’t really know what to say, other than life happens and we do our best to rise and meet the challenges.
Thanks for your encouragement. We had a long slide and recovering and healing from it are going to be a long and probably bumpy process. 🙂
LikeLiked by 2 people
Oh I completely agree that there’s nothing to do about it but accept it.
There’s really no value in losing sleep over “how we wish things were”. We either choose to accept things at they actually are now or we don’t.
Honestly though, I think reconciling that is a struggle that drives many people apart. People spend a lot of time looking at their partner and seeing “what they are not”, and “what they wish they would be”. And as a result, they find themselves unhappy. But if they could look at their partner and both see and accept them for who they actually are? Well, I suspect many people would find that there is a lot there to love.
I woke up in the middle of the night and your use of the word “option” popped into my head.
Drew may (or may not!) remember the general background, but for context, the extremely concise summary of our marriage is that we’ve been married 35 years, were increasingly disconnected during the last 20 years and extremely disconnected during the last 10 years. A year ago this month I woke up to where we’d gotten and realized that I was extremely dissatisfied with where our marriage had gone. Part of that involved my saying to my wife that if things didn’t change, I wasn’t sure I was going to stay in our marriage. Having let that genie out of the bottle, it’s obviously been my responsibility to deal with the genie.
So, back to this post. I don’t know why it did’t occur to me earlier, but I realized that I had been (maybe still am – read on) treating my wife as an “option,” in Drew’s words. That feels potentially very unfair, although I guess that while in theory each of the two marriage partners are always contributing 100% of themselves, there are times when one or the other isn’t doing so, for various good or bad reasons or maybe for no particular reason at all.
Since I said I wasn’t sure that our marriage would make it, things have changed a lot, and I realize that I still have a ton of things I need to change – attitudes, fears/anxieties, behaviors, all kinds of things. We can now communicate very openly and honestly without either of us feeling personally threatened, which is really big. We are starting to rekindle some warmth and a feeling of being a team again. I think trust has increased a good bit. All those things need to continue to grow, but at least the trend line is positive. And when we have setbacks we are able to name them and agree that there was a setback and agree that we’re going to keep moving forward.
So somewhere in this process I feel that my, well, frankly, my lack of commitment, has been reduced a lot. That’s in the passive voice because though I’d like to say “I reduced my lack of commitment,” I’m not sure that’s quite right because it didn’t happen/isn’t happening because of a conscious decision. That probably is not the best way for that to happen, but the truth is that my fears about really, consciously being committed are still very real. I know I need to wrestle with them. I may never get rid of them – I really don’t know. But even if I don’t, being consciously aware that it’s an issue and moving forward through that fear is probably not just good enough but actually good.
Drew, the post you linked, which I just re-read, evokes such complicated feelings for me. I totally feel your pain. I also totally empathize with your wife – because in my marriage I think I am your wife, and my wife is you. Part of me wants to say “yes, absolute commitment is good and right” and part of me wants to say “absolute commitment doesn’t exist – there are things that could happen that would make you want or even need to walk away, and even if none of those things ever happens, commitment is a daily decision, not a once-for-all-time decision.
Dunno…life is complicated.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Replying to myself, never a good sign… 😉
I wanted to add that although during the last nine months or so I really had thought I was focused on squaring away my own stuff, I realized recently that in fact I’d been putting a lot of stuff on my wife: blaming her, telling her she had to change.
This was a bit of a surprise, since I would have told you that I *wasn’t* doing that sort of thing.
So I find myself a year later essentially wanting to do a cold boot, as the Help Desk folks like to suggest. I had some bugs in the operating system. I think I know where they are or at least how they present themselves. So I need to load the operating system again.
I suppose that could sound discouraging, but it’s really not. In the past year I know with absolute certainty that I have really learned a lot and I have changed some things for the better, and I know those are permanent changes.
On the other hand, I also know now that there are things that still need changing, and I am pretty confident that I actually can do those things better, especially since they’re more or less in my control, not in my wife’s. (She probably has stuff she needs to square away, but in general I find that I am busy enough with my own $h!7 that I don’t have time to worry about hers any more.)
I don’t know if I’ll ever get rid of the fears that I have, which mostly seem to revolve around loss, but I think I can at least start to confront them.
So as a comment to throw out there, if someone is in a marriage with someone who says they’re having doubts and uncertainties, maybe the thing to look for is whether they’re trying to take a hard and honest look at themselves and whether they are facing the “right” direction (which I guess would be: facing toward their partner) and moving in the right direction. Some stuff in life happens, and some stuff sucks, but some of us really trying, even if progress is uneven and we still have to wrestle with our personal demons.
LikeLiked by 1 person
…and no, I am not trying to take over Drew’s blog!!! 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
Change is a hard one, because sometimes we really *need* change. But the only thing we can ever change is ourselves, and not our partners. They can and will only change when they are ready for it and they want that change for themselves. And if they don’t, and we have a need that is not being met in the relationship? Then I guess it’s up to us to determine if it’s actually a need, or just a want. And if it IS a need, we need to be willing to walk away.
Personally I have no issues with that. I’m all for working on relationships and doing our best to make them work. But of course they need to work for both people, and not just one.
If one person expresses an area of dissatisfaction/unhappiness and their partner truly listens, and shows consistent effort to bridge that gap, then I think that shows they have an understanding that relationships need to work for both people. In that case I would always give the person the benefit of the doubt.
But if someone expresses an area of dissatisfaction/unhappiness and their partner completely ignores the issue, pretends it’s not there, or worse says something like “that’s YOUR issue, not mine”, then I think there is a very dysfunctional situation.
Because of that, I think that of course our partners should always be “options” to us. BUT, I see them as options that we should continue to actively choose every single day (even on the days that we really don’t want to).
I have significant issues when some ones actions make it very clear that they view their partner only as an option. We all need to feel valued, and feel like a priority to the person we have built a life with. Life gets busy, and can often get in the way of being able to focus on the relationship – I think people get that. Sometimes though the relationship needs to be prioritized. Sometimes people need to say “hey, I know there’s a lot going on but let’s take some time out just for us”.
I like your comment about “facing toward their partner” – I see that as SO important. Relationships die when people get so caught up in their own world and their own issues that they forget to face toward their partner.
That’s a nice post you have here… but may I ask, what if the person involved doesn’t really listen?
LikeLiked by 1 person
By the person involved, are you referring to the person who is having doubts? If so, I’ll assume the scenario is one person is having doubts and as a result they are somewhat withdrawn/checked out, and it’s putting pressure on the relationship and on the other person.
In that situation I think two things need to happen:
1) the person who is having doubts needs to realize the impact those doubts are having. The person they are having doubts about starts to feel like an option instead of a priority, and it can really start to break down the relationship. Ultimately I think the person having doubts needs to make a choice – they need to either get over their doubts or they need to accept that doubts are normal and alright, and they need to be willing to invest in the relationship in spite of the doubts.
There can be a number of reasons behind doubts though, and sometimes those doubts are due to underlying issues/cognitive distortions (on the side of the person who is having them) that mean they may never really go away. Because of this…
2) the person on the receiving end needs to set some boundaries on what behaviours are acceptable and what are not. They may need to accept the doubts as just part of who the other person is, but that doesn’t mean that have to put up with anything. As mentioned in the post, a relationship isn’t a part time job. Someone can’t just check out every time they are having doubts and expect the relationship to be there when/if they decide that it’s what they want (especially when this sort of thing is often cyclical). So the person who isn’t having doubts needs to make it clear what they need from their partner ALL THE TIME, not just when their partner feels up to it.
And if those boundaries are consistently violated, then need to decide for themselves in they can live with that.
I’m very much pro-relationship, and I believe in doing everything you can to work on improving your relationship and making it work for both people. That’s the key though, it has to work for both people – not just one. When one persons needs are consistently not met because their partner is constantly checked out, and not sure if they really “want” the relationship that isn’t fair. And really, to me at least that’s not a relationship.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Very well said… are you a coach now? If not, you should you are good at it 🙂 I do enjoy reading your post. Cheers!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Ha, no. I’m just a guy who thinks relationships and marriage can be rewarding, and great. As long as we remember that it’s something that requires consistent effort, and a desire to put our partners needs/wants at the same level as our own.
thanks for the kind words.
LikeLiked by 2 people
You know, I think it’s true that marriage is “hard work,” or at least good marriages are. But the reason isn’t because our spouse is tough to deal with. It’s because really taking the time (hard enough) to take an honest, sober look at yourself (very hard) is so difficult. And doing that consistently is, well, basically impossible. The thing is to keep coming back to it when you lose focus.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi Jack, I try not to use the word “work” when talking about marriages, and instead use the word effort. For some reason work often has a negative connotation – this notion that it’s drudgery, or something you “have to do” vs. something you want to do. And although I know marriages often do become something people feel they “have to do”, or are stuck in, I really believe a marriage is something you should want. I like the idea of waking up every day with the knowledge that I am here because I want to be – because it’s something I actively choose.
You are right about the hard part being taking a look at yourself, your part in things and trying to work on improving as a person. It’s so much easier to think of happiness as something people provide for you instead of something you provide for yourself. And it’s a lot easier to point fingers and blame when things aren’t going well.
Thing is, I think it’s actually that approach (blaming, not taking ownership) that causes people to be stuck. When you take ownership of yourself – your own choices and emotions, then you have all the power in the world to grow.
Beautifully, and accurately, said, Drew!
LikeLiked by 1 person
This is at the one and the same time a part of my experience and almost impossible for me to wrap my head around. I never thought I’d have doubts. I never thought I’d find myself married to someone who would. Being a person who sees marriage as a real and permanent commitment as well as something that must be made a priority is such a deep and permanent part of myself I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand the aspect of our culture that gives in so much to getting married but doesn’t really stay checked in/do what’s needed or that looks for outs and justifications. It makes me deeply question the viability of the institution of marriage in a culture that denigrates it, a culture where you cannot trust that commitment is real or valued. But on the other hand no matter the culture humans can never be perfect and I’m trying to make my way back to believing that real and decent people exist, back to knowing that not everyone is going to choose permanent states of broken and abusive.
LikeLiked by 1 person
You use a great word here – culture. I have to say, I’m a bit concerned/disappointed by where we seem to be going culturally, and I think it has significant impacts on things like reduced levels of (perceived) happiness and rapidly rising levels of depression and anxiety.
It kind of makes me feel like the old man on the porch talking about how “in my day…” to say this, but from my perspective it feels like there is shift attitudes with an overemphasis on individual needs/wants/freedoms. Along with this, there seems to be a push towards instant gratification, and a decline in both personal accountability and appreciation. None of this seems good for relationships, or for things like marriage.
I recently read a fascinating book called “The Paradox of Choice”, and it really touched on my own belief system. I plan on writing a post on it some time soon, but the basic idea is that while some choice is a good thing, too much choice is actually bad. It can paralyse people, causing them to be unable to make choices. And it can also cause people to question the choices they have made – because there is always another choice out there that is “better”.
Even before I read that book, I wrote a lot about the concept of “enough”. To me, striving for perfection has always been a bad thing because you focus on the result instead of the journey (and the journey is what is truly important). Also, each person needs to determine what is enough for them – in everything in life. Because there is always going to be more. There is always going to be a better job, a better car, a better partner. Hell, you can always have a better body. But what is enough? I’ve never really dealt in the realm of doubt, because I acknowledge that there is always more but I kind of say “so what”? What I have is enough.
This is where I kind of hate marketing and parenting that tells people how special they are, and how they “deserve” the best (whatever that is). It seems we are creating a world of entitled people who are never satisfied with what they have.
By this I am absolutely NOT saying that people should settle, or should put up with crap – broken and abusive states. Boundaries are extremely important, as is knowing and respecting yourself. Further I think we should always strive for continuous improvement in all aspects of our lives. I just don’t think improvement can ever truly happen until you are able to accept how things are now.
LikeLiked by 1 person