Christy is married to Don, who is one of the more selfish people I know. He does what he wants, when he wants, and where he wants. Sometimes he brings loud music to the dinner table to entertain himself while he eats, for example, utterly disregarding how it makes family conversations impossible, not to mention that the two small children often cry because of the noise volume. He comes home from work when he wants to, disappears for hours at a time, and has a “non-sexual” girlfriend who he regularly goes on outings with. He never helps around the house, never spends time with the kids, and almost never spends time with Christy.
Christy is learning how to be more loving, but she is in a truly one-sided relationship. Her question to me was, “How long do I stay in a relationship like this?”
I get asked this question a lot. Let’s try a metaphor. I carry things all over my yard: dirt, tools, gravel, water, seed, stakes, rebar, and more. A lot of these items I carry in five-gallon plastic buckets with wire handles. They make carrying things convenient, and when they’re full, they’re a good load—not too little, not too heavy.
These buckets are made to be used under strenuous conditions, and sometimes they get cracks in the plastic, or the handles snap out of the holes designed for them. Then I snap the handles back in, reinforce them, tape the cracks, whatever it takes to make the bucket functional. I don’t baby the buckets. They were made to carry loads, and I’ve used some of them for years, loading them with whatever I can get into them.
Eventually, a bucket just can’t do the job anymore. The cracks become too big or irreparable. The handles break in ways I can’t fix. Then I throw the bucket away. I don’t keep it around as a decorative pot, or wear it as a hat. It’s no longer suitable for its intended use, so out it goes.
Sometimes it can be useful to judge a relationship like a bucket. It was meant to hold love and trust and cooperative effort. It might get worn, or develop a crack, or lose a handle, but often it can be repaired. You don’t want to intentionally overload a relationship—I wouldn’t put molten steel in one of my buckets, for example—but you also don’t want to treat them so gingerly that they become useless.
No matter what Christy put in the bucket, Don threw it out and filled the bucket with whatever served him. He never repaired anything, and he abused the bucket to the point that cracks and lost handles became the rule.
“Keep putting your relationship in the bucket,” I advised Christy. “Don’t baby him. Don’t avoid upsetting his selfish feelings. Fill the bucket with love—never with anger—but also with shared responsibility. You’ve already tried asking him to help around the house, and to spend time with his own children, but he’s refused, so start assigning him things to do. In other words, require that he carry part of the load, like a bucket. Otherwise, you’ll never learn what he’s capable of—and neither will he. The more you require shared love and responsibility, the more you’ll learn whether he wants to be a partner or not.”
Giving up on a marriage or long-term relationship is no small matter, but some people utterly refuse to participate as partners. They won’t carry or even use the bucket. At some point you have to decide whether you want to share the burden with that person, or whether you want to move on without them.
Learn how to peacefully decide about divorce.
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