Some couples are at their closest when they decide to part
Recently, on Radio 4’s 'Desert Island Discs', actor Anne-Marie Duff talked about relationship breakups, saying that sometimes couples were at their closest in the moment they realised they couldn’t stay together. Sadly, some people never become that intimate. For many couples, the closer they become, the more they pull back. Most of us don’t realise that becoming close to someone else can trigger immobilising fear - of being betrayed (again), of losing the person or of not being a good enough partner.
As a result, couples often develop ways of avoiding closeness, such as bickering all the time, being busy, feeling ill or tired and highlighting their differences and disappointments rather than their strengths. Few realise that their relationship dynamic has become based on an elaborate collusion. Instead, they either blame their partner for whatever seems wrong or soak up their partner’s blame, feeling more and more wretched.
It takes courage to risk real intimacy, so that many couples work much harder at maintaining distance than they do at cultivating their relationship. Sometimes this can prevent the relationship from changing at all because, somehow, treading water seems safer than any sort of difference. Couples who claim to be soul mates often do just this, working at sameness rather than appreciating each other’s differences.
Couples who become close and allow themselves to grow and develop within a nurturing relationship do sometimes change in ways which mean they need to move on. The trouble is that we make vows promising to stay together forever, or at least make commitments which suggest we’re in for the duration, so breaking up has become associated with failure. Duff’s idea that a mutually realised need to split demonstrates closeness is a good one, which actually demonstrates how much of a success the relationship has been.
Staying close and attempting an amicable separation certainly means you will never lose a very special friend, that you won’t have to endure the fighting that separating couples often go in for and that you will develop a workable and effective parenting style. Duff and her husband actor James McAvoy remained living together for a while after their split, and are clearly still cooperative parents and friends following their divorce in 2016. Their way is so much less painful and better for everyone - especially children - than engineering disagreements to deaden the pain of parting and to justify the ending.
From a relationship therapist’s point of view, it’s true that couples often present very late in the day, genuinely unclear whether they want to save the relationship or run for the hills. It’s surprising how often a relationship which seems hopeless revives beautifully and how a truly close and loving couple can recognise that parting is their best move.
My advice? Keep an open mind. Be brave. Seek help.