“Numb: Deprived of the power to feel…Emotionally unresponsive; indifferent”

Many people come into counseling because they feel that they need to make a big change in a relationship and are not sure which course of action they should take.  Often times individuals wonder if they are seeing their spouse/significant other correctly or have distorted vision and are about to make a huge permanent mistake by making radical adjustments in their relationship.

The number one thing I hear from folks who are having trouble with moving forward with a decision is that they don’t know if they can trust their feelings about what they need to do. The word “numb” often comes into the conversation. People wonder if they have become so comfortably numb to the pain of an unhappy relationship that they don’t feel confident in their own judgement anymore. Is the indifference they may feel towards a romantic partner really just self-preservation and when the numbness should wear off, they would be seeing the situation in a very different light? Few emotions are worse than regret so people work hard to avoid it and that’s ok.  On the other hand, few things are worse than living comfortably numb in a relationship that is clearly dead and will remain unresponsive to attempts to resuscitate it.

How does  a person know if they are numb to their “real” feelings for a relationship or really have come to the point of being done and caring has permanently left the building? It’s a tricky question and a colleague put it very well in that “some people confuse caring with being numb. Wrong. Numbness is when you can’t feel something you ordinarily would. Not caring is when you don’t feel something because you don’t care. ” I agree.

Caring is at the heart of whether to stay in a relationship, to dismantle the couplehood now or get an exit strategy in place that works for the circumstances. When we have stopped caring we have to wonder if we have gone numb but feelings are still there below the surface (like at the dentist when we are temporarily numb and can no longer feel) or if we have really arrived at the  point that “when it’s time to go, there it went” as my colleague put it.

As a counselor I always advocate that people not end relationships until they know that they know that they know it’s truly over and it can not be fixed. Sometimes coming to that place of surety is extremely difficult. If people find themselves simply unable to determine if they have gone numb or are really moved on in their hearts, I find a time of separation to be the number one most helpful tool to cut through the confusion. Whether it be a boyfriend/girlfriend or a spouse, a time of separation can be just the thing needed to determine the best next step. I have seen many people gain insight, clarity of mind and a clear purpose through a time of stepping away from the hyper-focus on the relationship and get a better perspective from a few steps back.  It never ceases to amaze me what we can see when are not looking at just one corner of a painting and step back enough to see the whole work of art.

If you are facing the confusion of numbness vs feelings of being done, I encourage you to not do anything permanent until taking a period of at least thirty (30) days away from the relationship. If you need longer to get some clarity, then take it, but start with thirty and see what you learn. You might see that there was numbness masking feelings that you will be able to find or you might have the confirmation that you need to move forward in a direction that is right for you and your future. Staying comfortably  numb in a relationship should not be an option though and a time of separation should be after all other actions to repair the relationship have been tried and been unfortunately unsuccessful.