We’ve all been there: you’ve been with a partner for some time, and you’re starting to feel unhappy. Maybe your partner isn’t treating you well, or maybe you just want something more for yourself. But as unhappy as relationships can sometimes be, we often don’t leave them right away.
Are you feeling trapped in an unhappy relationship? Here are five steps you can take to start getting your confidence back and make an assertive decision about the future of your relationship. You have the power to get unstuck.
1. Reflect on Yourself
First, do some self-reflection. Figure out what might be going on inside of you that might be making you feel this way. Sometimes, we feel trapped in a relationship not because we’re unhappy with our partner, but because we’re feeling stuck in other parts of our lives.
How are you feeling these days? What’s going on in your life? Have you gone through any big changes lately? Are you feeling stuck in a rut in your life or career? When was the last time you felt really passionate about something?
Ask yourself these questions to identify your emotional state and determine whether or not it’s your relationship, specifically, that you feel trapped in — or if you’re just feeling trapped overall.
We tend to feel trapped when we feel stagnant in life — like we’re not moving forward in any way. Sometimes, we might project this feeling onto our partners. Maybe you’re lacking passion in your career, for example, and you feel like if you were in a new and exciting relationship, then your entire life would improve.
2. Reflect on the Relationship
If you’ve determined that it’s really your relationship that’s making you feel trapped and unhappy, reflect on the root causes of what might be behind that feeling. No one is ever actually “trapped” in relationships - in other words, you don’t need anyone’s consent to leave - but we’ve all been in situations where we’ve stuck around, no matter how unhappy we were.
What’s making you feel stuck in this relationship? People stay in unhappy relationships for all sorts of reasons. Some of the most common reasons people get “trapped” are:
- Guilt and shame. You might feel like you’re somehow indebted to this person, or be afraid of what others might think if you leave the relationship.
- Fear. Many people feel afraid of leaving an unhappy relationship. Sometimes, fear might be legitimate — perhaps your partner is abusive, and you’re afraid of what might happen if you leave. Other times, fear is less directed toward your partner and more toward an uncertain future. What would life be like if I left my partner? Is it too late to start over? What if I end up alone? These are all common fear-based questions people ask themselves when they’re thinking about leaving a relationship.
- Dependence. This may have to do with physical or financial dependence. Maybe you quit your job in order to take care of your children, and now you’ve found yourself financially dependent upon this relationship. Maybe it’s more of an emotional dependence; many people come to base their entire identities and social lives on their relationship.
It’s important to reflect on your relationship and figure out both what’s making you want to leave, and what’s making you feel like you need to stay. Weighing the pros and cons is a critical part of making a decision.
3. Rediscover Your Confidence
No matter what you decide to do in your relationship - whether you choose to stay or leave - feeling trapped could be a sign of low self-esteem. You know that something isn’t making you happy, but feel like you don’t have the power to change it. But the truth is that making changes in your life is often up to you.
It’s important, when making important life decisions, to make them with confidence. You may have lost your confidence because of this relationship, but what can you do to get it back? Some people find that going to therapy is helpful for them to rediscover their power, and others find it easier to simply do some self-reflection and get support from their friends.
Whether you choose to stay or go, you’re going to need all the confidence you can get.
4. Figure Out Your Next Move
Now, you’ve got to figure out what you want to do with everything you’ve learned from the reflecting you’ve done. What’s your next step in this relationship? Is the relationship worth saving, or is it time to move on?
Clearly, if you’re feeling stuck, then something needs to change. What kind of change is needed? Ask yourself: what would need to be different for me to want to stay in this relationship? What kind of relationship would make me happy, and is that possible to achieve with my current partner?
Decide whether you want to leave the relationship or try to make it work. Couples therapy, if your partner is up for it, can be very effective in this stage to help you figure out, as a couple, how you want to move forward. Couples therapy is also often a critical part of improving the relationship if you decide to stay in it.
5. Make an Exit Plan
So you’ve decided to leave the relationship. And maybe for you, it’s as simple as that. You may not be financially dependent on your relationship or need to fear for your safety if you leave. In these cases, you may not need a detailed plan to figure out how you can leave the relationship.
For many people, though, it’s not that easy. Especially if you’ve been in this relationship for a long time, this separation will probably be messy and painful. It may be easier and safer to make an exit plan for the relationship.
Some of the factors that you should consider when creating your exit plan are:
- Safety. First and foremost, think about your safety. Is your partner abusive? Would you fear for your safety if you leave or threaten to leave them? If so, you need a safety plan. Local women’s and domestic violence shelters can usually help you with this. You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.
- Finances. Whether or not you are dependent upon your partner, you’ll probably have to think about finances if you have lived together for a long time. What will the arrangement be? Will you and your partner continue to be financially linked (is alimony a consideration that needs to be made, for example?) or will you go your separate ways as far as money goes? Do you have joint debt that needs to be dealt with?
- Children. If you have children (or even pets), then that’s an additional factor you need to consider. Will you share custody of your children? Are you going to fight for your partner to contribute, financially or otherwise, to raising your children?
You Are Not Trapped
Most of the time, we’re not really trapped in a relationship. But it’s valid to feel trapped, because of all the reasons we discussed earlier. If you’re feeling trapped in a relationship, the most important thing is to regain your confidence so that you can make an assertive decision that’s right for you and your life.