When we are considering giving up, on our relationship, or on life itself, our thoughts become narrowed to whether or not we are going to give up, and how we would leave if we decide we are done. From thoughts in divorce about how we would afford moving out, what furniture we would take, and how we would tell the kids, or in suicide how we might kill ourselves, how people will respond and if we should leave notes, we become completely consumed with a very narrow field of thought.
What we don’t think about? How to improve our situation.
When we become consumed questioning if we should leave, and if so, how we stop thinking about ways we might fix our situation with our partner or our relationship to life. We stop thinking about what we might do to improve our situation. We stop focusing on the specifics of what is making us unhappy and dissatisfied and what we might do to address it. We stop using our creative energy to explore options for how to make radical change in our relationship or life.
There are times in life that are dark and conflictual, where our attachments to the people around us, and sometimes to our very life, are frayed. While we might naturally question our attachment, when our psychic energy becomes consumed with the question of leaving or staying, none of that creative psychic energy is available for facing the issues in our relationship and life.
As a psychotherapist I frequently meet with individuals who are suicidal, and individuals and couple contemplating separation. It is reasonable. But if they are coming to therapy, there is definitely a part of them that is open to a different solution.
I ask suicidal clients or client considering separation, to agree to a 6-month period where they do not allow themselves to think about leaving. I ask that every time they start to think about leaving, they shift their thoughts to how they can craft a better life and relationship. I invite them to use all their creative, amped up, psychic energy and put it to the task of looking at ways to address the things in their relationship and life that are resulting in their frustration and unhappiness.
I similarly make a 6-month commitment. I commit to re-explore with them in six months their questioning of staying or going, separating or re-committing, giving up on life or committing to life. I take their questioning seriously and promise that I will remember that they have a decision they are trying to make. I simply ask them to postpone that decision for 6-months so that we put their thoughts to different use.
With so much at risk at hand, of divorce, of death, all of the regular excuses we use that prevent us from taking real action to change our situations become absurd. When we don’t want to have a hard conversation with our partner because “it could devastate them”, we have to set that next to the possibility of divorce, which will certainly devastate them more. If we are suicidal in part because there is something we are hiding about ourselves, like sexual orientation, or an unplanned pregnancy, addiction or dating someone we fear will alienate our family, when the other option is our own death, it might feel more reasonable to let the secret out even if it means living without certain unaccepting others. No matter how radical the change one would need to make, it likely pales in comparison to separation or suicide.
I am not trying to make light of the agony of questioning the sustainability of your partnership, and certainly not of contemplating suicide. I am trying to highlight a function of the mind which is to galvanize thought in the direction you point it towards. Make sure you have given your mind a chance to help you, creatively, robustly, without distraction of defeatism. Neither divorce nor suicidality is “the easy way out”, but we must have done the hard work of disciplining our mind to help us think of every vehicle, every effort, every courageous act to save what is precious.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
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