It ain't over 'til it's over
Infidelity, boredom, even downright misery - none of these is a reason to end a relationship if you really want it to last, says a new book. So should you stay or should you go? Sarah Litvinoff assesses a fresh approach
Sunday 30 August 1998
Speculation at bus queues, dinner parties and endlessly in print goes: how could she stay with such a man? Will she stay? How could she love him? Does she love him? Is it political expediency, or personal ambition? And so on. Everyone has an opinion, and usually advice.
Perhaps even now, Hillary is furtively flicking through the pages of Should You Leave? by Peter D Kramer (Gollancz, pounds 17.99) purportedly a book of advice, written by a psychiatrist - a discipline noted for its disinclination to give advice. It's a fascinating, elegantly written book, with strong, believable case histories (which he admits are fictional) in which the complexities of the relationships and their problems make the "should I leave?" question a genuine dilemma. To give an unforgivably brief summing- up of his answer, it is: "It depends".
Kramer's first story tells of a successful woman, Iris, humiliated by her lover, Randall, whom she discovers is having an intimate, though non- sexual, relationship with another woman in which he disparages Iris via e-mail. The other woman has forwarded it to her. In Kramer's imagined consultation with Iris it emerges this is Randall's pattern: to commit to one woman and denigrate her to another, that there is hate and fear in his attitude to women. On discovering his betrayal Iris trashed his computer and other beloved items and moved out. Yet she still prevaricates: Randall has abased himself making amends, she still loves him; she can't bear being alone; she's moved back.
Provocatively, after some typical wavering, Kramer sides with her yearning to stay, despite knowing, as he says, that "the cruel oscillation can continue forever". It's a bad bet, "but I have seen worse bets succeed."
This is an advice book of subtlety and wisdom, which will be appreciated by every reader - except those urgently asking the question "Should I leave?"
Actually, you don't even have to know the people involved to guess at the answer they'll come up with. If they are American, divorce statistics tell us that two-thirds will say yes, and if they live in the UK you could toss a coin on it: it's about 50-50.
More often than not, Kramer's oblique advice is to stay, partly because marriage is a state of regular shifts, crises and re-evaluations. As he writes, "Any marriage worthy of the name entails repeated remarriage, active choices to stay on in the face of new perspectives on self and spouse." Cavell goes further, claiming that "only those can genuinely marry who are already married.'"
Kramer's main point is that however different a couple might appear, their emotional maturity is usually remarkably similar: "Whom you have chosen speaks to who you are", and that real growth occurs by changing within a relationship. Choosing a new model usually means the same problem in different clothes: "Second marriages do not seem gloriously better than first marriages; or, if they do, it is often because the second marriage benefits from efforts or compromises that might as readily have been applied to the first."
This same message is more popularly expressed in Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix (HarperPerennial), who offers practical techniques, which are missing from Kramer's book. Hendrix talks about your "Imago": the person you fall in love with is "the ideal candidate to make up for the psychological and emotional damage you experienced in childhood". And for precisely this reason your great love will certainly wound and disappoint you until you address the issues that drew you together. He further suggests that it is only in a "conscious marriage" that you can truly heal yourself, and that it offers personal growth unmatched by anything else, including psychotherapy.
At last, it seems, the experts are finding a compelling reason for couples to stay together that is not based on morality, religion, or what's best for the children. Since the glue disintegrated on the so-called "social aptness" of marriage (when it was a contract in which he brought home the bacon and she looked after home and children, love was a bonus, and spinsterdom was to be pitied or despised) the "emotional aptness" of the modern "companionate marriage" has proved a poor substitute. If you're not happy, loving and contentedly sexual with your partner then what's the point? Should you leave? How much should you take before cutting your losses?
Kramer and Hendrix make the seductive promise that staying together, changing yourselves, dealing with power struggles and problems of intimacy doesn't just benefit the marriage, but can result in a personal breakthrough into greater maturity and happiness as an individual.
But Kramer is the first to say that it's hard, and it doesn't work without cooperation at some point, even though one of you can start the process alone. Hendrix, a psychotherapist, claims major successes for his Imago Relationship Therapy, and has trained many other professionals in his techniques, but still, of course, there are failures. The broad answer seems to be that you should stay together whatever the provocation or problems, and commit to working on it - but that's a counsel of perfection. Some people won't work, don't want to, or are so damaged within the relationship that they can't.
So how much should you - can you - take before deciding to end the relationship? From my own experience writing three books for Relate and talking to dozens of counsellors and sex therapists, I have to say, in agreement with Kramer: it depends.
I do believe, however, that there is a rule of thumb: when the relationship is destructive to your sense of self - when you are physically, psychologically or emotionally beaten down so that fight and hope go out of you - then leaving is essential.
But even this may be less clear-cut than it seems. I've witnessed two highly attractive, successful and confident women battered (though not physically) into apologetic fearfulness. The worse it got, the more difficult it was for them to leave, because who would want them? Perhaps he would change? Thankfully, one was left by the man, and is back to her vibrant former self; the other found just enough courage to leave after one indignity too many, and has also bounced back.
I have also seen other women in relationships that were equally abusive and apparently destructive, who seemed just as unhappy, if not more so - but who were somehow enlivened; they nursed a rage that invigorated and gave central meaning to their lives. One woman does leave, eventually, and usually makes a similar relationship the next time; another has been unhappily married for decades, but seems curiously satisfied by what seems intolerable to outsiders. In my book, What's Your Sexual Style? (Coronet, pounds 6.99), I looked at emotional and sexual personality types, which can explain these differences. For instance, an "Emotional" type can thrive on misery and discord - it's feeling deeply that matters; while a "Romantic", who finds life pale without passion and excitement, may choose the drama of fighting when love wanes: it's unhappy excitement, but better than nothing at all.
Hillary Clinton doesn't appear to be a down-trodden woman, whose self- respect is being eroded in an abusive relationship. Theirs might not be anyone's idea of an ideal marriage, but I suspect Kramer would say, "I have seen worse bets succeed."
n Where you are is probably not far from where you should be
"There are limits to how different things will be if you exchange one partner for another"
n Expect discomfort
"Your new posture need not feel natural or comfortable"
n Change yourself first
"In the role you assume in the relationship - not insistence that the other change"
n Expect a response:
"Holding constant while the other becomes disturbingly reasonable or decamps"
n Be self-centred
"Effort in the relationship entails investment in your own self"
n Focus on differentiation "The ability to remain oneself in the face of group influences, especially the intense influence of family life"
n Differentiation occurs within relationships
"It is the complexity, the impossibility, the dullness or pain of the current imperfect relationship that provides the context for change"
Peter D Kramer's precepts from Should You Leave?
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