Making healthy choices when it comes to boundaries with an unfaithful partner who may be uncertain and/or uncooperative.
by Tim Tedder, LMHC, NCC
Few things are more confusing than a relationship in which you thought there was a mutual commitment, only to eventually discover that your partner is uncertain or maybe even heading off in a new direction; perhaps alone, or perhaps with someone else.
So what do you do? Do you wait and hope they come back? Chase after them and try to turn them around? Do you just let go?
I hope the following insights will offer some perspective on making healthy choices. This article is intended for people who still hope for their relationship when their partner seems to be giving up.
This article is an overview of a section of the online course “Affair Healing for Betrayed Partners” which addresses the many needs of injured partners with over 100 lessons, exercises, and additional resources. Preview it for free at: www.mychange.courses.
Ineffective Focus: Managing Your Partner
If your partner is telling you they’re not sure they want to be with you anymore, you may feel fearful and frantic. You may want to do anything to save the relationship but if you are not careful your acts of desperation may actually push your partner further away. The harder you try, the more you hear, “I’m not sure I want to be in this relationship anymore.”
These acts of desperation include any of the following:
- Telling your partner that nothing they do matters; you will continue to love them no matter what.
- Assuming responsibility for the problems in the relationship and promising to change.
- Constantly pleading for your partner to stay.
- Insisting that your partner goes to counseling even though they have no interest in it and put no effort into the process.
- Continuously blaming your partner; trying to guilt them into doing what you want.
- Threatening your partner. When panic leads you to either appeasement or control, your attempts to manage your partner are likely to have the opposite effect of what you desire.
Your efforts will push your partner away from you, not toward you, as they attempt to escape from your “neediness” or control. They may pity you and wish things were different, but can rarely return to loving again under those circumstances. They will likely feel trapped and inwardly struggle against any sense of obligation to fix the relationship.
So what should you do if your partner remains distant and uncommitted? What actions are more likely to alter their retreat? Start by refusing to play the role of desperation any longer. Instead, take control of what you can manage: yourself.
Effective Focus: Managing Yourself
Here are the 3 steps you should start making right now. These are healthy choices. If there is any chance that your partner is going to return to a committed relationship, these steps will encourage a quicker return, even though they may seem counter-intuitive.
Step #1: Let Go
Tell your partner you still want to be in a relationship with them, but you know you cannot work on it until they are certain about their commitment to do the same. If you’ve been trying to control them, admit it. Apologize for trying to do something that wasn’t your job to do. Let them know that from this point on you will no longer attempt to control. They are free to make their own choices. Let them go.
This will result in a radical shift in your relationship. You will feel very vulnerable because there is certainly a chance that your partner will exercise this freedom by moving farther away from you. You have to be willing to let that happen. Before you take this step, make sure you are prepared in these two ways:
- Be honestly committed to letting them go. Your partner may actually take you up on the offer and will be out of your reach, at least for a while. If you give this “letting go speech” as a manipulative ploy to get them back quickly, they will see right through your insincerity. If you have been checking up on them to see if they are getting involved with someone else, you must be willing to stop all of your investigative patterns at this point (no more checking up on where they are, checking emails, demanding answers, etc.). This isn’t something you can control, so stop trying.
- Be ready to give this some time, even if your partner immediately tells you they don’t want you to do it. Some people resist this kind of change because they realize they’re losing power in the relationship. They may become angry and accuse you of making things worse (see Q&A section below). Or they may immediately break down and promise to give you everything you’ve been asking for. Your caution should be on high alert. If you give in too quickly, you’ll likely experience a moment of blissful hope followed by your partner’s swift return to the old pattern of non-commitment. If your partner says they truly are committed to working on this, let them know that you need time to feel confident about their decision. Make sure they back up their commitment with a plan of action (counseling, for example).
How far do you let them go?
If you know your partner is in another relationship, you need to separate from them. I’ve watched many relationships caught in the “Ping-Pong Effect” of bouncing back and forth between partner and lover. This can go on for a very long time, but the pattern will lose its momentum if you remove yourself from the equation. The extent of relationship separation depends on your situation, but some type of physical separation is recommended. If you’ve been living together, you should insist on a change that allows you to stay in separate places. If there is no affair, you may first focus on emotional separation (see Step 2 below).
How long should you let them go?
That’s up to you. You’ll probably want to seek help from a counselor or trusted person as you try to figure out how long you will wait, but one thing I encourage is this: Have an end date in mind. You can always adjust your deadline, but you should have some sense of how much time you are willing to give your partner.
Step #2: Limit Your Availability
This choice is a very important one. Your partner needs to experience your shift in the relationship. Up to this point, you’ve been easily available to them, but they do not value this and may have lost respect for you. So back off. You need to create some distance between you and your partner, not out of anger or revenge or manipulation, but out of a need to focus more on yourself and less on them. You need to limit your availability in these ways: give less tenderness, less talk, and less time.
If you think your partner is starting another relationship, you need to stop all affectionate behavior. This is not a competition between you and the other person; it’s something your partner has to figure out for him/herself. As long as affection is being given to someone else, respect yourself enough to stop all romantic or sexual behaviors. (Your partner may argue about this, but stop contributing to their bad behavior.) If your partner is not another relationship, you may still have moments when affection is expressed, maybe even sexually, but it’s important that you not be the primary initiator. In fact, being a bit aloof is actually more enticing than always being ready-and-willing. Your partner should definitely get the sense that you don’t need to be with them.
Up to this point, you probably have been talking too much. You need to limit the amount of communication (talking, texting, emailing, phone calls, etc.) you have with your partner. Keep away from emotional conversations. If your partner invites you to talk about how you feel, give an honest answer, but keep it brief. You should focus on business-of-life communication (if you have any joint responsibilities) and avoid bringing up relationship issues. The key here is to focus on communication that allows you to remain confident, calm, and in control.
You should be less available to your partner. I don’t mean that you should selfishly refuse to do anything with them, but you need to be more attentive to what you can do without them. You are capable of finding meaning and enjoyment in life apart from your partner; they need to experience that.
Step #3: Focus on Growth
You’ve been focused on changing your partner, now it’s time to focus on changing YOU. Your contentment in life should not be bound to the whims of your partner or the circumstances of your relationship. Of course, these both affect you deeply, but they should not control your contentment. Rather, your satisfaction in life should be firmly rooted in your contentedness with who you are and who you are becoming.
Who do you want to be? What is your understanding of the design or purpose for your life? What does God want for you? What in you gets in the way of realizing those things? What are your passions? What do you enjoy that you haven’t done in a long time? What have you always wanted to do? What new things get you excited or make you want to learn?
Stop trying to get your partner to a better place. You can’t control them. The only person you control is you, so start being intentional about doing those things that help you grow.
Tim Tedder, LMHC, NCC
Tim is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Nationally Certified Counselor with a passion for helping couples in crisis. He is the founder of the website, AffairHealing.com. Tim has also created several courses to help people recover and heal from infidelity. You can preview them for free here.