About the end of a partnership: leaving? Stay? Leave? Stay?

Some women want to get away from their husbands. But internal and external pressures keep them from separating again and again.

What if he changes after all … Photo: photocase/dioxin

"We let it last as long as it takes. We’re not doing anything about it and we’re not doing anything for it." Says Paula to Paul in the Defa classic "Paul and Paula".

Sounds convincing, sounds simple: If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work anymore, it’s over and the partners separate.

But it’s often not that simple. For Katharina and Jurgen, the stove has been off for ten years. They live in separate rooms, go on vacation separately, eat breakfast separately. But they don’t take the final step: swapping the large apartment in Berlin for two smaller ones, selling the family car and negotiating who will keep the cocker spaniel after the separation. That annoys Katharina.

For years she has been telling her friends that she can’t stand it anymore. That Jurgen tires her out as soon as he enters the kitchen. And that she wanted to leave.

"Then leave already," the girlfriends have been shouting for years. They are also annoyed. They’re annoyed by Katharina’s nagging and the fact that she’s always picking on Jurgen, who the women actually find quite okay. But they are most annoyed by Katharina’s answer: "I’ll try again.

"If I leave now, it was all for nothing."

Do I look good? Am I nice enough? How do others find me? Questions that determine the lives of many women. Or to put it another way: the inner corset. This is the subject of the special issue for this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8. Among others, with Laurie Penny, the Muslim Sineb El Masrar, the fashion blogger Katrin Lange, the author Gabriele Hafner, the sociologists Cornelia Koppetsch and Sarah Speck, the full-time dad Jochen Konig and the author duo Almut Schnerring and Sascha Verlan. You can find the complete issue in print at the newsstand or digitally at the eKiosk.

Why doesn’t the woman leave? She has a job and her own money, the son has moved out. Except for the car, there’s no shared house or expensive weekend property that would weld the two of them tightly together. As is the case with other couples who don’t separate because of real estate and expensive possessions. What inner corset keeps women from staying with their partners even though they are cross-unhappy with them?

Antje Barnick, physician

"The women have the hope that things will get better again at home at some point."

"The women have hope that things will eventually get better at home," says Antje Barnick. The psychotherapist, doctor and hypnotherapist is familiar with "cases" like Katharina. Her practice in Berlin’s Mitte district sees people with a wide range of psychological problems: Anxiety and eating disorders, depression, nicotine addiction, stress reactions.

It’s an interplay: all of these illnesses have an effect on partnerships – or are triggered by the partners’ crisis-ridden relationship with each other.

When the women in Barnick’s bright therapy rooms high above the city talk about their lives, it’s primarily about desolate and fragile relationships. The doctor hears about a lack of mutual respect, about selfishness and callousness, about lovers and about violence. Things that do not belong in a relationship.

Nevertheless, the doctor also hears this one sentence over and over again: "If I leave now, it was all for nothing." All the effort these women put in to please their husbands is in vain. In vain the energy they spend on raising the children and running the household. For nothing the tears that the women shed because they are not thanked for their commitment. And in vain all the attempts to change the man. Because the way he is, he is not good. And because he is not good, love is on the brink.

Sexual partner, friend and father of the children

"It is an illusion to believe that a woman can change a man," says Antje Barnick. It’s the same the other way around. A man who talks little when he’s young doesn’t become a talker when he’s old. An alcoholic doesn’t stop drinking just because he meets a new woman. And a soccer fan doesn’t turn into a gardener just because his wife prefers tulips to goals. "A person’s personality is formed as they grow up and only changes through extreme stress." Traumatic experiences, for example, massive violence, things like that.

But Antje Barnick doesn’t advise women to "break up." She would never presume to do that. Rather, she tells them phrases like, "You might live another 20 or 30 years. That’s a long time. But it can be beautiful if you make a change in your life instead of trying to have the other person be different."

Some women take that to heart. Those who stay try to come to terms with a clear calculation: a large apartment together is better than a small one of their own. "For women, divorce is usually an existential problem, for a man it’s a financial one," says Helene Klaar. The Viennese divorce lawyer doesn’t only consider marriages worth preserving that are perfectly happy, she recently revealed to the Suddeutsche Zeitung: "When you’re starving and freezing, I don’t think it’s so important whether love is still the same as on the first day."

Some men would also "reckon" like that, Antje Barnick has experienced. But they would cope better with it. "They accept that the wife is no longer the lover, but maybe just the mother of their children or the friend they talk to," Barnick says. While women wanted the complete package: that one man as sexual partner, friend and father of the children.

Some women stay because they’re afraid of loneliness. An understandable impulse; people are social creatures and don’t want to be alone, says Hamburg psychiatrist Josef Aldenhoff. But the idea of romantic love, great sex, growing old together, and all that permanently and with a single person, that’s naive, thinks the author of books like "Me and You. Why?" This simply does not appear "in the logbook of evolution.

Because fear makes you "incompetent

Every phase of life needs its own partner? "It can be like that," says Antje Barnick: "In between, there can definitely be phases of being alone." Which some women might find difficult to bridge. "Those women know that it’s not bad to be alone. They know rationally, they have friends, a job, kids, they’re not lonely. But emotionally, they feel left alone like a little child. And that’s existentially threatening for them." So they stay.

But some women also ask themselves: am I still complete after a separation, still worth as much as before? A woman without a man, she didn’t get one. There’s something wrong with her. "That’s an external evaluation that has to do with questionable standards of society," says Antje Barnick: "Some single women devalue themselves in this way."

Men, she says, are far from imposing such an inner corset on themselves. They would rather orient themselves outwardly in similar life situations: Office, mistress, soccer, friends. Some media reinforce the image of the woman who only has a chance on the singles market as a willowy beauty, says Barnick: "But that’s not true, of course." Three quarters of all women in Germany are overweight. Are they all single? No.

With increasing gender equality, the standards for choosing a partner are shifting. As a study by Nothwestern University in the U.S. and the University of Innsbruck has just found out, men prefer educated women who earn enough themselves and who don’t have to provide for the men. "Obviously, it’s more important to be able to rely on each other and have fun together than to simply be beautiful," says Antje Barnick.

And what does that mean for the women who want to know from the doctor what they should do in their crisis? And what for Katharina and Jurgen?

"The women need to find out why they are afraid to leave," says Barnick. As long as they don’t know, they stay. Because fear makes people "incompetent," she says: "Then they feel it’s nice that someone is there to take care of you. Whatever."

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