NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, August 5, 2013

Letting Go of Unrealistic Expectations in an Unhappy Relationship

In his book, The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz has a chapter called "On Mourning the Future" in which one of his clients, Jennifer is trapped in a lifeless relationship.

As he listens to Jennifer describe a long-term relationship with a man who can't commit to getting married or having children, he writes that he thinks about what he would want a therapist to tell his own daughter if his daughter was trapped in a relationship like this.

Stephen Grosz says he would want a therapist to tell his daughter that breaking up means not just giving up the present but also letting go of the hopes and dreams of the future with this person.

Letting Go of Unrealistic Expectations of in an Unhappy Relationship

While this might seem obvious, many people who are caught in lifeless relationships maintain an unrealistic sense of hope that there will be a future at some point that will include all the things they're not getting now in their relationship.

These hopes and dreams of the future can be so powerful that a person in an unhappy relationship can remain focused on these future fantasies to the exclusion of what's actually happening in the here and now.

Meanwhile, time keeps passing, and this person remains stuck and unhappy, relying on fantasies to get through the present.

The Past is Alive in the Present and the Future is Alive in the Present
As Stephen Grosz says in his book, the past is alive in the present and the future is alive in the present.

Let's look at an example of this phenomenon in the following case, which is a composite of many different psychotherapy cases with all identifying information changed to protect confidentiality:

When Susan came to see me in my psychotherapy private practice in NYC, she was in her  mid-30s and she was in a 10 year relationship with her boyfriend, Mike.

Susan said she loved Mike very much, and she knew that Mike loved her.  She wanted to get married and have children, but Mike kept saying that he wasn't ready.

Susan told me that every time she raised the subject of marriage during the last several years, Mike kept putting it off because of whatever stressful situation was going on in his life at the time.

There was the time that he was having problems with his boss.  After that, there was time he was starting his own business.  And, after that, his mother began having health concerns and he was too overwhelmed by this to talk about getting married and having children.

Susan tried to be compassionate and understanding, but she was concerned that Mike might never be ready to commit to marriage and children.

Whenever she tried to talk to him to tell him that she was concerned that if she waited much longer, she might not be able to have children, he became annoyed with her and told her she was selfish to overwhelm him when she knew he was already overwhelmed.

As Susan talked about this dynamic in her relationship, I could tell that she already knew that Mike would never make this commitment, but she wasn't ready to let go of the relationship or her fantasies of her future with him.

She was very emotionally invested in her fantasies of the future with Mike.  She imagined what her wedding would be like.  She thought about having children with Mike and buying a house together in the suburbs.

The problem was that these thoughts remained nothing more than fantasies in Susan's mind.  Thinking about them helped her during the times when Mike brushed off her concerns that time was passing and her biological clock was ticking.

When I asked Susan how she thought she would feel if, somehow, she knew for sure now that Mike would never be ready to make a commitment to getting married and having children, she thought about if for a long time and then she became tearful.

Over the next couple of months, Susan began to acknowledge to herself that she really knew that Mike was never going to be ready to make a commitment and she had been kidding herself all this time.

Knowing that someone you love will never make the commitment that you want and actually doing something about it are two very different things.  But Susan was at a point where she was no longer in denial.

She talked about her sadness about letting go of Mike and letting go of her dreams about a future with him.  As Stephen Grosz might say, she was in the process of mourning her future dreams with Mike.

It took a lot of courage and the willingness to go through the emotional pain of a breakup with Mike for Susan to leave her relationship.  It also took a sense of hope that there could be a future with someone else.

Even after she broke up with Mike, Susan was plagued with doubts about whether she made a mistake.  She feared being alone for the rest of her life and never meeting anyone else that she would love as much and who would be willing to make a commitment.

She thought: Would it have been better to stay with Mike, who loved her and whom she loved so much, than to wonder if she would ever be in a loving relationship again?

Fortunately, several months later, Susan began a new relationship with another man who was able to make the kinds of commitments that she wanted.  Eventually, they got married and, since her doctor advised her that if she wanted to have children, she shouldn't wait much longer, she got pregnant soon after that.  And both she and her husband were happy.

Fear of Letting Go of Unrealistic Fantasies of a Happy Future When You're in an Unhappy Relationship
Not everyone is as fortunate as Susan. Many people remain in unhappy long-term relationships as time passes and their fantasies about the future get dimmer and dimmer.

Many of these same people really know deep down that their fantasies about the future are just that--fantasies that will never materialize with the person that they're with.  But denial can be very powerful, and letting go is difficult.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're stuck in a lifeless relationship where you really know that your partner or spouse isn't going to change, it's important to allow yourself to realize that time is passing.

You owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional who has experience helping clients with this issue.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many psychotherapy clients to have more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also see my articles:  
Your Relationship: Should You Stay or Go?

Overcoming the Fear of Falling In Love and Getting Hurt Again