Psychotherapist Mira Kirshenbaum draws on years of research and her work with real-life couples to help you make the right decision. She shows you how to diagnose your unique situation with self-analysis and questions like these, which get to the very heart of your problems:
• What sins are forgivable and which ones are unpardonable?
• Is your partner questioning your opinions to the point where you doubt yourself?
• What is your sex life really like, and how important is it?
• Is there real love left between you, and how does it stack up against all that you find unlovable?
Mira Kirshenbaum provides expert guidelines that are the key to making all your choices, concrete steps that you can implement right now, and the ultimate way to determine your personal bottom line—what you need to be happy. This remarkably insightful and probing guide offers advice that lets you see the truth about your relationship—and with wisdom and compassion, it helps you act with the confidence of knowing that whether you decide to go or stay, you are doing the very best thing.
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About the Author
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Table of Contents
Part I - THE PROBLEM
Chapter 1 - Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?
Chapter 2 - Dancing in the Dark
Part II - THE SOLUTION
Chapter 3 - Enough Is Enough
Chapter 4 - It’s Too Late, Baby
Chapter 5 - Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love
Chapter 6 - You’ve Got a Hold on Me
Chapter 7 - Talk to Me
Chapter 8 - What Is This Thing Called Love?
Chapter 9 - It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing
Chapter 10 - All the Things You Are
Chapter 11 - Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off
Chapter 12 - You Say “Tomayto,” I Say “Tomahto”
Chapter 13 - If Ever I Should Leave You
Chapter 14 - R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Chapter 15 - Who’s Sorry Now?
Chapter 16 - I Can’t Get No Satisfaction
Chapter 17 - Love To Love You, Baby
Chapter 18 - I’ve Got You Under My Skin
Chapter 19 - Next Steps
TOO GOOD TO LEAVE, TOO BAD TO STAY
“A wise, compassionate, and very readable book. It will bless many lives.”
—Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People
“Kirshenbaum’s expertise allows her to pinpoint the pertinent questions.... And threaded through the book, which is written in a sympathetic, chatty, accessible style, are validating anecdotes that dramatize how other people have experienced and responded to the same problems the reader is going through.”
“Braving her detailed questions about power, betrayal, communication, respect, intimacy, sex, and love can transform the frustration of being stuck into a decision that feels right.”
“Packed with meaty case histories.”
—New York Daily News
“No fairy dust here, but a real chance for healing what Kirshenbaum calls ‘the pain and waste of relationship ambivalence.’”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Interesting reading and helpful in the way a good therapist can be helpful—by asking the right questions, by clarifying the answers.”
—Olga Silverstein, family therapist, author of The Courage to Raise Good Men
MIRA KIRSHENBAUM is a psychotherapist in private practice and the clinical director of the Chestnut Hill Institute in Massachusetts, where much of the research for this book was conducted. The coauthor, with Charles Foster, Ph.D., of Parent-Teen Breakthrough (also available in a Plume edition), she lives in Boston.
Also by Mira Kirshenbaum
Parent/Teen Breakthrough: The Relationship Approach
(with Charles Foster, Ph.D.)
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England
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Published by Plume, an imprint of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.
Previously published in a Dutton edition.
First Plume Printing, July, 1997
All rights reserved
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
The Library of Congress has catalogued the Dutton edition as follows: Kirshenbaum, Mira.
Too good to leave, too bad to stay : a step-by-step guide to help you decide whether to stay in or get out of your relationship / Mira Kirshenbaum.
1. Man-woman relationships. 2. Relationship addiction.
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
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To my most important teachers: my patients. You have shared your lives with me over the years and I’m eternally grateful for everything I’ve learned from you; for your dedication to health; for how hard you work to find happiness; for your willingness to learn lessons I know are tough; for your trust.
To my mother. I know how much you’ve accomplished, and I know how hard you’ve struggled. I wish I could have helped you when you needed it most, but I was too young. Thank you for inspiring me to believe I could help others. Thank you for inspiring in me the desire to learn the truth about love.
And to my daughters. You’re the best, and you deserve a world of love.
This is a book about truth and love. It would not have been possible without the work of Dr. Charles Foster. Every word here is the product of a fifty/fifty collaboration between us. His research, insights, and ideas fill this book. We are full partners in everything. Because of him, in every way this search for the truth has been a labor of love.
I’m profoundly grateful to all the individuals whose lives and stories went into the research for Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay. They were amazingly open and helpful, and what we’ve learned from them constitutes the bricks out of which this book is built.
There are many people I must mention if I’m to thank them properly. The debt I owe each of them makes me wish I could do more, in this small space, than list their names. These people are, one way or another, colleagues, teachers, heroes, friends who’ve given something specific to me, personally or professionally, through the years here at Chestnut Hill and elsewhere. They may not even realize the value of what they’ve done for me, but it played some role in making these pages possible. To all of them I say thank you: Louise Bates Ames, Shaye Areheart, Lisa Bankoff, Susan Bickelhaupt, Ruth Bork, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Alexia Dorszynski, Barry Dym, Dorothy Firman, Roger Fisher, Betty Friedan, Diana Huss Green, Jennifer Hack, Jay Haley, Jules Henry, Kathleen Huntington, Allan Kaprow, Alfred Kazin, Michael Kirshenbaum, Mary Jo Kochakian, Rabbi Harold Kushner, Eda LeShan, Richard Marek, Amy Mintzer, Salvador Minuchin, Nancy Moscatillo, Eli Newberger, Maury Povich, Cynthia Roe, Izzy Rudski, Ann Ruethling, Kim Schaffer, Gitta Sereny, Myron Sharaf, Judith Sills, Ivy Fischer Stone, Richard Stuart, Walter Watson, Paul Watzlawick, Rosa Wexler, Robert White, Elie Wiesel, Beth Winship, and Harold Zyskind.
Some people are sadly no longer alive to hear my gratitude for what they’ve given me. But I feel I must nonetheless express my thanks to Fred Avery, Gregory Bateson, Herbert Berghof, Martin Buber, Paul Goodman, Walter Green, Don Jackson, Pearl Karch, Virginia Satir, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
I want to thank my daughters, Rachel and Hannah, who cared so much about this project and who expressed their love and intelligence by letting me feel the full weight of every constructive criticism they could think of.
What incredible good luck to have a mensch like Howard Morhaim as my agent. Without his gifts and his belief in me and in this project, all the people who need it would be denied the help this book offers. I am profoundly grateful to him. And a thanks to his assistant, Kate Hengerer.
My editor, Deborah Brody, has wowed me with her intelligence and enthusiasm. I thank her for caring about this book and for her marvelous ability to translate her caring into effective action that’s enabling this information to reach as many people as possible.
I’d also like to thank all the other terrific people at Penguin and Dutton who I know have helped and will help this book and me. I can’t mention everyone’s name but I would like to single out Marvin Brown, Judy Courtade, Arnold Dolin, Elaine Koster, and Peter Mayer. A thanks to Julianne Barbato for her excellent copy editing, and a thanks for the care she’s taken with my work to Jennifer Moore. Finally, I know how important Lisa Johnson’s inspired work on my behalf has been in the past and will be in the future, and I’m grateful for it. And a special thanks to Tracy Guest.
I’d like to thank all the readers of my previous book for their incredible support. It means so much to me. I’d like to particularly thank the countless numbers of people who called and wrote just to tell me how much that book helped them.
Last, but not least, I must thank those patients of mine who kept asking me to write this book. I can’t mention your names, but you know who you are.
TO MY READER
You are not alone. There are 140 million Americans today in a relationship, and one-fifth of them—that’s 28 million people—just can’t decide whether to stay or leave.
You deserve the happiness you’re searching for. I’ve dedicated years to developing a simple but comprehensive series of questions and guidelines that will help you see clearly, once and for all, whether it’s best for you to stay in your relationship or leave it. The women and men you’ll meet here have struggled with the same issues you have. Their experiences will help you discover what’s real in your own relationship, regardless of how long you’ve been with your partner or how long you’ve been stuck in ambivalence.
This book contains only good news. If it’s best for you to stay, you’ll have the satisfying experience of facing all the issues and discovering that your relationship is truly too good to leave. You won’t be settling; you’ll know your heart is home.
And if you’ll be happiest leaving, you’ll get the reassurance that comes from finally understanding why your relationship has been too bad to stay in. When you end a relationship that deserves to end, you’re liberating two people to move on to better lives.
Either way, because you’ll see what’s best for you, you’ll be far happier than you’ve been. Everything in your life will be better. I’ve written this book to help you make this happen.
Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?
You’ve gone through a lot to get to this point.
You’ve hoped that love would be enough. And you’ve worked to resolve the problems in your relationship. And you’ve tried to accept things the way they are.
And you’ve agonized over the possibility of leaving.
But you just haven’t known what to do. Now you’re ready to face the choice that’s been weighing on your heart. That’s what this book is for—to help you discover which is best for you:
To stay in your relationship, recommitting to it free of doubt, free of holding back, free at last to pour your love and energy into the relationship and get back everything there is to get from it
To leave your relationship, finally liberating yourself from it, free of confusion, free of pain, free at last to get on with a new and better life.
Up until now you haven’t found the kind of evidence that speaks to your heart and makes clear what’s best for you. You haven’t found a sign like one of the following:
Leaving. He wouldn’t make her a sandwich. Heather had been working in the garden in the hot sun all morning, and Bill had been doing God knows what inside the house. Through the open kitchen window she’d heard him grab a beer, and she asked if he’d throw together a sandwich for her. “No, you do it,” he said, as if she’d asked him to do something too hard, too inappropriate.
That’s when it hit her, clear as day, once and for all, that his selfishness was undeniable and bottomless, that for her the relationship was over, that there was nothing here for her, and that she’d be better off getting out. And she did. And she’s never regretted it for a moment.
Staying. What had happened to the sweet woman he’d married? Now, three years later, Steve felt that Lynn had turned into someone who did nothing but complain. Then one Friday coming home from work Steve heard a song on the radio—“When a Man Loves a Woman.” Something about it got through to him, something about his having a responsibility to make sure she knew he loved her. They’d gotten so polarized, he saw, that he’d overlooked the possibility that she was unloving because he was unloving.
Steve spent that night and all weekend trying to show Lynn he loved her. It wasn’t until Sunday that it got through to her. Then she just melted. Her old sweetness came back. It was suddenly clear to Steve how easily they could overcome the problems that had been making him think of leaving. Steve decided to put all thoughts of leaving out of his mind.
It’s terribly frustrating to be able to do nothing but wait passively for signs like these. Fortunately, new hope is now entirely realistic for you. That’s why I’ve written this book. You can find answers to the questions most important to you:
• Whether the two of you really do fit together or not
• Whether the things that bother you will get better or worse
• How you’ll feel if they do get better and if they don’t
• Whether you can improve the relationship on your own or with the best of therapists
• What you’ll find if you leave and whether it’ll be better or worse than what you have now
• How to balance the responsibility you have to yourself and to the people you care about
No matter how hard it’s been for you to decide, now you can find out the truth about your relationship one way or the other, the whole truth, your own truth, the ultimate-reality-at-the-heart-of everything truth. Now you can achieve the clarity that will enable you to feel confident making one of the most important choices of your life.
But finding clarity depends on whether you actually want to find clarity in the first place or whether the most comfortable place for you is staying up in the air the way you’ve been. Your relationship is either too good to leave or too bad to stay in. But it can’t be both. So there are definite answers for you here, but if you really don’t want to come to a decision, you’ll find that out as well.
But What About Love?
We’ll talk a lot about love here. The clarity you’ll reach will also help you see how real your love is, and how strong. Love, which made everything so definite at the beginning, now makes everything more complicated. Sometimes things are terrible but your love still seems strong, and then what do you do about love? Sometimes things aren’t so bad but there’s little love left to hold them together, and then what does love mean for you?
I just want to assure you that as you see what’s right for you to do, you’ll be able to put love into perspective among all the other things you care about.
THE HAPPINESS THAT LIES AHEAD
My mission is to do two things.
First, it’s to share with you the experiences of people who’ve wrestled with the issues you’re wrestling with and come out on the other side and to report what they discovered. For example, think about something that bothers you about your partner, that strongly weighs on the side of your leaving. Wouldn’t you want to know how other people bothered by that felt once they left? You’ll find that out here. And if something else pointed to a basic strength in a relationship that made people happy they stayed, you’d want to know that, too. And you will. And if yet another issue you’ve been stewing over really turned out not to make too big a difference one way or the other, you’d want to know that as well so you could stop stewing over it. And you will.
Second, my mission is to help you rediscover the value of your own experience. I’m not going to pull a rabbit out of a hat that has nothing to do with what you’ve felt and seen about your partner and your relationship. Just the opposite. We’ll keep returning to the basics of your own experience. The problem isn’t that you don’t know what’s going on; it’s that you’ve had trouble sorting it all out.
The choice you discover will be one you feel good about after you make it, and better and better about as time goes by. It will be a choice that leaves you free of regret. Which is exactly what you were looking for in the first place!
TRAPPED IN LIMBO
If you’ve suspected that it’s not good for you to stay up in the air, you’re right. Staying ambivalent, in fact, can cause tremendous damage. Being stuck like this can end up killing you emotionally if you stay when you should be getting out. And it can end up killing your relationship if you keep thinking about leaving when it could be fixed if you only put energy into it. You can end up being deprived of joy and of freedom, of intimacy and of hope. And it’s not as if waiting around is going to show you what’s best for you. Ambivalence doesn’t produce real answers. It’s just a dangerous trap.
Doing the Limbo
Dee, a twenty-nine-year-old buyer, had lived with Keith for four years. There were good things about the relationship, like their strong sexual chemistry, but Dee was never really happy. They kept fighting about many things, like what Dee thought of as Keith’s irresponsibility, which she was afraid would only get worse in the future.
After they broke up last year, Dee was happier. But she was lonely. Now they’re dating each other again, partly because of her sexual needs, partly because she didn’t meet anyone better, and partly because Keith promised to grow up. And so their relationship chugs on, no better than it was before, filled with the same mixture of familiarity and misery it’s always had.
Dee’s not on the verge of making a commitment one way or the other. She’s on the verge of being stuck not knowing what to do with her relationship for a long time, possibly years.
Can you believe forty years? That’s how long another woman, Kate, spent neither being in her marriage nor leaving it but miserably camped on the outskirts of it, waiting for a sign to tell her what to do.
As you’ll see in a moment, Kate’s one of the most important women in my life; and the fact that she never broke through her ambivalence had an unhealthy impact on both of us. So it’s not only professionally but personally that I’ve experienced the terrible price we all pay for not knowing what to do with our relationships, all the pain and wasted time millions of people suffer from staying endlessly undecided.
Kate had married on the rebound after getting divorced following a brief first marriage. Her second husband, now dead, had been a businessman, volatile, quirky, sometimes unpleasant, but in some ways a decent guy. They were able to put up a good front, and their friends envied what from the outside seemed like one of the better marriages in their circle. But it was hard for Kate to remember when they’d ever had much in common. They usually couldn’t talk without fighting; when they weren’t fighting there was usually nothing to talk about.
It wasn’t the most terrible marriage in the world. There was just a lot of unhappiness in it flowing from distance and discord. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best), Kate would’ve given it a 3. And yet she stayed in it, doing what she saw as her duty.
What do you think she should have done? Kate had two good alternatives. In spite of myths about women needing marriage, the evidence is now unmistakable that a woman like Kate could have been happy if she’d been on her own. And I believe she also could have had a chance at happiness if she’d stayed, working on the relationship more (perhaps going into couples therapy) instead of finding her energy sapped by thinking of leaving.
The Cost of Staying up in the Air. But Kate was terribly unhappy for forty years because she did neither. She waited for one milepost after another to pass—the kids starting school, her going back to work, the kids leaving home, her husband’s retiring—hoping that she’d get a sign that would tell her what to do.
Just think about what it must have been like to spend all those years thinking about leaving. It meant spending years stewing over all the things that were wrong with him and all the things that were wrong with her for staying with him. You pay a price for feasting on negativity like this. Suppose that it would have been best for Kate to leave. To live with all that negativity and not leave could only destroy your sense of yourself as a valuable, effective person. Or suppose that it would have been best for her to stay. Then living with all that negativity could only pollute and ultimately destroy what would otherwise be a viable marriage.
Kate paid another price for a lifetime of not deciding. The tension and misery she felt, directly traceable to living stuck in ambivalence, put a strain on her relationship with her children that took years to heal.
The woman I call “Kate” is my mother, with some details changed to protect her privacy (as I’ve done with all the people you’ll meet in this book), and her husband was my stepfather. In many ways, Kate’s a heroine, as a Holocaust survivor and a self-made businesswoman. But in this important way she didn’t know how to choose happiness. And in her ambivalence she’s like far too many of our parents, far too many people in middle age, and far too many people just starting out. I wrote this book to save others, to save you, from going through what my mother went through.
THE AMBIVALENCE EPIDEMIC
You may be wondering if there’s something wrong with you to feel so stuck. But the fact is that there’s an epidemic of ambivalence about many things these days. We live in an age that promotes self-awareness but fails to show us how to use our self-awareness to arrive at good decisions. We learn more and more things about ourselves without learning ways to sort them out or to sort out the feelings they generate in us.
This is particularly true when it comes to our relationships. As one actress said on TV, being interviewed about her marriage, “You’re supposed to reevaluate your relationship every day, aren’t you?” Only if you want to confuse and exhaust yourself. We’re told so many contradictory things: to be responsible to ourselves and to our partner, to be happy in ourselves and to be mature about our obligations, to fix our own lives above all else, and to fix our relationships no matter what.
Whatever love we feel for the other person feels so real, and yet we know we also have a responsibility to love ourselves. We see therapists on TV who claim they can bring any relationship back to vibrant life, but we know how difficult it is to change even the smallest thing in our own relationship.
No wonder so many of us have trouble figuring out what’s best for us to do. But you can find the clarity you’re looking for if you want to. And I believe you do want to, and that you have everything it takes to see what’s best for you.
TAKING RESPONSIBILITY TOGETHER
What makes a book like this possible is the fact that an individual can be unique and yet still be similar enough to other people to learn from them. Without our similarities, medicine and psychology would be impossible. It’s because we are similar that a diagnostic test or a wonder drug can help millions.
But it’s because we’re unique that medicine and psychology remain an art as well as a science. I know as a therapist that I can’t meet my responsibility to you if I forget for a moment that you are an individual. Just because you’re similar to other people in some respects doesn’t mean there aren’t profound differences as well. And I always have to take those differences into account.
But I also can’t meet my responsibility to you if I fail to probe for the experiences that link people. That’s the power that research and clinical practice give, not just mine but that of countless others, particularly Dr. Charles Foster, whose shoulders this book stands on.
Answers at Last
This book is based on an attempt to answer questions people have asked for a long time:
• Which iffy relationships will most likely be okay and which ones are virtually unfixable?
• What makes people happy they left a relationship? What makes them happy they recommitted to it?
Our research involved talking to people in the same situation you’re in. They were asked about their ambivalent feelings and their partners’ positives and negatives. They were followed over time, during which many tried to solve their problems (and many were successful) and many ended their relationships.