“Should we break up?” “I don’t know.” Sometimes, it can feel much easier to sit on the fence rather than making a firm decision. While being a little unsure about whether you want to stay in a relationship is normal, here’s why staying on the fence for too long has its problems.
In the immortal words of Abba, “Breaking up is never easy.” Saying goodbye to a partner can be difficult – so difficult that some people spend a little too much time hemming and hawing before making the decision to cut ties. And for some, it can feel easier to avoid the decision altogether: the relationship fence sitters.
Reaching a state of mutual ambivalence towards a relationship is more common than you may think. After all, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of avoiding your relationship problems head-on. But according to a Psychology Today piece by Bob Taibbi, fence sitting is far more dangerous than you may initially think.
What is relationship fence sitting?
Do you find yourself imagining what breaking up would be like? Do you and your partner break up then get back together again over and over? Do you feel like your relationship is a long-term placeholder? You may be in a fence-sitting relationship.
For Louisa*, a 27-year-old from London, relationship fence sitting became a dangerous habit that lasted for years. “In my last relationship, I started to feel like something was off about a year in,” she says. “When I’d imagine our lives together in the long term, I just wasn’t sure it was what I wanted. And to be honest, I could tell he kind of felt the same way.”
But neither Louisa nor her boyfriend made any move. “The relationship felt stagnant, almost dead. But we just kind of kept going,” she recalls.
Relationship fence sitting is different to considering your options before a break-up. It’s also different to settling into an easy, comfortable relationship once the initial spark dies down, though it can feel similar. With relationship fence sitting, both parties in the relationship know deep down that the relationship is ultimately unsustainable – but neither makes a move. They sit on the fence.
Why we fall into a habit of uncertain relationships
It’s pretty easy to see why fence sitting is a common pattern in relationships. Doing nothing is usually easier than doing something. It takes guts to make the first move – especially when it comes to relationships.
“When someone is fence sitting, there is fear of the unknown,” says communication and relationship expert Debra Roberts. “They know everything that comes with their current relationship. So even if the person doesn’t feel good about it, there’s still comfort in knowing the circumstances they face every day versus not knowing what the future will bring relationship-wise.”
“And, for some people,” she says, “after they weigh their options, they realise that staying in an unsatisfying or unhealthy relationship is easier than having a serious conversation around a big, scary topic.
And leaving behind a not-great-but-just-fine relationship comes with social stigma, too.
“Leaving a relationship because it’s become boring carries some social stigma,” explains Jack Worthy, a licences mental health counsellor. “Essentially, you’re announcing to your community, ‘I deserve more.’ That invites everyone in your world to ask themselves and one another, ‘But does she?’
Plus, as Taibbi points out, fence sitting is contagious. “You waffle and the other guy waffles or each is waiting for the other to make a solid move that can turn into a blink contest; they can do this forever,” he writes.
The dangers of fence sitting
Fence sitting in a relationship is, unfortunately, very easy. But if you stay on the fence about your relationship for too long, you may be doing more harm than you realise.
For one thing, fence sitting means that you and your partner avoid confronting important things in your relationship.
“I think deep down, my boyfriend and I could feel that something was wrong,” says Louisa. “We’d even talk about things sometimes – but we never actually decided what to do about it. For me, it kind of felt too scary.”
Falling into this pattern is, according to Roberts, unhealthy and unfair to both you and your partner. “When we avoid confrontation around a meaningful topic, we are not taking care of our own needs – we’re responding from a place of fear and avoidance, not inner strength and confidence,” she says. “Over time, if we avoid a confrontation and the situation affects our wellbeing, we can become resentful and even depressed.”
“If a relationship has fatal incompatibility issues, surfacing those sooner rather than later helps you to not become too attached too soon to an illusion of compatibility,” adds Worthy.
Avoiding decisions in your relationship can also be unfair on both you and your partner. After all, staying in a fence-sitting relationship means that neither of you are available to meet someone who might be better suited as a long-term partner.
Geting out of the habit
The longer you sit on the fence, the harder it is to pluck up the courage to take a leap of faith.
The first step isn’t confronting the other person – it’s confronting yourself. “If you’re on the fence, stop trying to leave or decide,” suggests Worthy. “Rather, narrate to yourself your experience. Be present with yourself in your choice: ‘Here I am. It’s Friday night and, once again, I’m bored and have nothing to say to this person. But I won’t leave or start an adult-to-adult conversation, because I’d rather be comfortable.’ Either the discomfort will drive you to take a new step, or you’ll recognise that you’re actually not interested in changing.”
Roberts agrees that reflection comes first. “My advice to a fence sitter is to bring in self-awareness,” she says. “Look at the toll the relationship is having on you while you are fence sitting. You deserve to be happy, and if you are not content with this relationship, try to have a conversation with your partner.”
After self-reflection comes that conversation you’ve been putting off. By finally vocalising your feelings and doubts, you’ll be able to break your mutual habit of staying on the fence – either you both make serious changes in the relationship so that it is sustainable in a healthy way or you finally accept it’s time to call it quits.
We’re often told that relationships take work – that even the healthiest relationships don’t feel great 24/7. But that doesn’t mean you should sit on the fence if your gut is telling you that you need a change. Yes, taking the plunge off the fence and making a change is scary – but it can also be the best decision you can make.
*Name changed for anonymity