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Breaking Free
Knowing when the time is right to leave the Safety Net
Earle Donelson, Ph.D.
Samaritan Counseling Centers

Frequently, I work with individuals who say they are stuck. They may be adults in marriages or relationships that are unfulfilling. They may be older teens or twenty-year-olds living at home. Some have jobs they do not like; others attend churches where they feel uncomfortable. Typically, they express feelings of dissatisfaction or boredom. They may express embarrassment, or fear, anger or resentment, yet they are often reluctant to make a change. Even when it becomes evident to themselves or to others that the time is right to break free, they often hesitate. When asked why they don’t leave their job or home, marriage or relationship, they often express apprehension about what leaving, or changing, the situation might mean. Some feel that they cannot change things, that they have dug themselves in too deep. They may not be happy with their situation, but they are reluctant to leave the “safety net.”

The danger of safety nets is that when inverted they tend to trap us. We turn them upside down when we rely to heavily on the emotional, financial, physical, social, or spiritual security we think they provide. Failing physical or mental health (personality or self-esteem issues, feelings of inadequacy, or lack of empowerment), troubled finances, a lack of friends or an insufficient support network can also add to the tangle and hinder us from breaking free.

Oftentimes when I talk to individuals who are not satisfied with a marriage or relationship, but are reluctant to leave, they remark that, while they are not happy or satisfied emotionally, they worry about the consequences of leaving and being “out there.” Others are emotionally dependent upon their partner and feel they cannot survive without them, or they feel obligated to stay in the relationship for their spouse’s or children’s sake. Still others are either so financially or materially dependent on their partner that it is not immediately possible to leave. Fear of a change in their social status or the condemnation of others ties some people to bad relationships. The same reasons play out when someone is reluctant to leave a job, or church, or circle of friends. Typically, apprehension over what the future may hold keeps people from making a change. After all, change can be very scary, uncertain and life-altering.

In discussing such situations, people oftentimes ask a counselor or therapist what they should do, where they should look for permission or approval to make a change. Barring life-threatening, abusive or potentially exploitative situations, the counselor oftentimes will not answer this question directly. Instead they will encourage the individual to begin looking for answers within. Looking inside ourselves and within our relationship with God is the key to finding answers or directions. Through introspection and self-exploration, and in prayer and discernment of God’s will, an individual is likely to uncover a way to loosen cords that are binding too tight. Self-reflection can help us assess the pros and cons of a situation more rationally, see alternatives through a clearer lens. Hope and empowerment can grow from the process. It is within ourselves that we will typically find our answers. Out of faith and confidence that God will guide us and will be with us come the courage and reason to ultimately make a decision whether or not to break free of the safety net.

Copyright ©2004 Earle Donelson

Find out more about pastoral counseling.


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