I had the pleasure of attending a Getting the Love You Want Workshop recently. This workshop is built on Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt’s book by the same title, and is designed to help couples reconnect and to resolve conflict successfully. The workshop facilitators guided couples through several exercises and experiences, either educational or reflective, and independently or collaboratively. Interestingly, among the workshop segments that got the most chatter, action, energy, and questions from participants by far, was about relationship exits
A relationship exit is acting out on your feelings rather than expressing them in words in a way that is respectful to your partner and helps you connect. It is any behavior or activity that allows you to reduce or avoid involvement in your relationship. Exits drain necessary energy from the relationship because you use it, at least in part, to avoid being with or talking to your partner about yourself, and the difficulties that cause you to want to avoid spending time with him or her.
More “terminal” or “catastrophic” exits such as affairs and addictions often require outside intervention. Other, “softer” exits can be things such as watching too much TV, not being present, surfing the net, connecting with friends, hobbies, interests or projects. Depending on a couple’s particular tradition, the upcoming holiday season can offer weeks and weeks of a wide variety of connection-sapping exits: family conflicts, cooking special meals, hosting visitors, travel, shopping, sales, and gifts, reconnecting with friends or family you see only during the holidays, holiday parties, plays, religious/spiritual events, community service, volunteering and decorating, to name just a few!
These activities, in and of themselves, are not exits; in fact, they can be important and life-giving. But admitting to avoidance behaviors, much less discussing them with one another and then considering closing or limiting them can be very difficult for couples. But, why? It seemed couples’ perceptions of exits fell into these general themes:
- The concept of an exit is a subtle thing. The same activities that can be functional and healthy can also be detrimental to a relationship. It’s difficult to imagine intentionally avoiding relationship on one hand when on the other hand, there are things that just have to get done, and the choice to do them seems necessary (think work or parenting). How can doing a good/necessary thing be bad (for my relationship)?
- Who likes the idea of having to give up something they enjoy? We don’t like the idea of our personal interests and our relationships competing with each other, especially if the interests define who we are and serve as part of our identity. We tend to prefer the time-honored traditions of acceptance and tolerance, which seem to be in direct conflict with closing exits, “changing” or “making demands” of a partner. There is also resistance to the idea of what feels like giving another person permission to say what activities and interests need to change in our life. We may wonder when we give up this or that, is there anything left for us?
- We don’t like change. When we are okay with the way things are, looking at exits triggers a natural resistance. This can be especially true for the partner who tends to be a turtle/introvert and may prefer more time on their own doing more independent things like thinking or processing. They may be comfortable with time apart, and less likely to need their partner to stop doing the things they love for the purpose of spending more intentional time interacting and connecting with them in the relationship. To them, more time apart and lessened potential conflict resulting from minimal relational interaction may be a benefit.
Over the next week, perhaps at times when you are aware of not particularly wanting to spend intimate time with your partner, notice what things you choose to do instead. Take time today to list these activities; they might be potential exits for you in your relationship. Remember that factors which can determine whether an activity is an exit or not are: (1) the existence of balance, (2) your (sometimes unconscious) motivation for the choice to exit, and yes, (3) your partner’s perception of the activity’s impact on them and on your relationship.
Then, share your list with your partner and elicit their input. If this would be a difficult conversation for you and your partner to have, consult with an Imago Therapist who can help you have a safe and healthy dialogue about it with an emphasis on your connection. Imagine instead of feeling like you are obligated to give up something you enjoy, with some honest disclosure and connected conversation, you might actually enjoy spending time connecting with the one you love even more!