Pendulum Swing

What’s it like to be conflicted in a relationship?

People who are conflicted are constantly thinking about the pros and cons of leaving and the pros and cons of staying. They constantly question what they think and what they feel. As well, most of the time they are feeling pain and distress that varies from mild to severe. They try all sorts of things to improve the relationship – reasoning, convincing, pleading, buying things, going on holidays, adapting, adjusting, individual and couple counselling, etc. Some people blame their partners and some blame themselves.

When people who are conflicted still cannot get their needs met they often give up and resign themselves to the relationship the way it is. To endure it, they do many things to distract from the pain and sense of powerlessness. If there are children they will focus on them. Many people turn to their children and pets for love and affection because they cannot get those needs met from their spouse. They may work longer hours, go out often with friends, spend more time doing hobbies such as sports, gardening, chess, music, video games and partying. If there is no love in the relationship they may experience grief and loss of ever finding love and happiness. They may numb out the pain with affairs, gambling, drinking and/or drugging.

Thinking about breaking up and actually breaking up are two different things. At one time the pendulum swings toward breaking up. An unhappy spouse will think and think and think about breaking up and finally get to the point where action is required. To take the actions necessary to break up is very difficult. Taking action creates conflict and emotional pain. It evokes fears. The pendulum swings back again, giving relief from the potential stress.

Most people are conflicted about staying in or ending their relationship at one time or another. Even people who remain married or in relationship for the rest of their lives still go through natural developmental stages that bring into question whether or not to stay together. Couples that have developed a good working relationship usually are able to negotiated these times easily. Their relationship remains healthy and evolves to the next stage. But couples who have not been able to develop a way to handle differences and resolve problems have a much more difficult time going these stages. Their relationships are more likely to become unhealthy and get stuck at one stage or another. When relationships get stuck, one or both members of the couple then tend to swing back and forth, like a pendulum, between staying and leaving.

Relationships and marriages are rarely all bad. When they are, there is no decision about whether or not to end it, it is a matter of, if it is possible, and if so, when. In very abusive relationships it may be dangerous to leave. Research shows that in such marriages a spouse is most likely to be harmed when he or she tries to leave the relationship. Children are often at risk during this time as well.

Relationships may be a ratio of 80/20% bad to good or 60/40% bad to good, or even 70/30% good to bad. When an unhappy spouse thinks of leaving what comes to the foreground is the grief and loss about the good in the relationship that they have to give up. No one wants to give up the good stuff! They fear that they may never find it again. They often confuse grief and loss with love. That’s when the pendulum starts to swing the other way. As they start to think again about staying, the grief and loss dissipates. Now they continue to swing toward staying and again investing themselves in the marriage. But then the difficulties in the relationship come to the foreground. They feel the pain of ongoing interactions that are painful and stressful. They start to dread certain times such as coming home and spending time together. They dread special days such as Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day and anniversaries. They may fantasize about their spouse having a fatal car accident or dying of a disease. When it gets to be more than they can stand the pendulum starts to swing back the other way. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. Sometimes the pendulum goes slowly back and forth. Sometimes a particular event or interaction may trigger the pendulum to swing quickly from one side to the other.

It takes action to change this distressful pattern – actions that invest oneself again in the relationship and either attempts to make the relationship better or just tolerate it the way it is. And, it requires actions to exit.

When people do take actions often their lives go into chaos. The old patterns, routines and habits are shaken up. While shaking up a stuck relationship is required to reorganize, it is extremely stressful for all involved. During this stage many people will reconcile, not because they want the relationship, but because they want to stop the confusion, stress, fear and emotional pain. They long for the familiar even that is stressful too. At least they know that stress. The pendulum swings back again.

Couples often break up and reconcile several times before they finally make the changes needed to stay together. Some people change only when the stakes are high. In marriage break up, the stakes can be very high. Or, before they finally break up for good.

It is very difficult to take the actions needed to stop the pendulum from swinging.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea Mackay

Do it Yourself Relationship Help at

2 Responses to “Pendulum Swing”

  1. Allen Taylor says:

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Allen Taylor

  2. Excellent article.