When you’re feeling trapped in a relationship, it can be a catch-22 – you feel like you have an obligation to stay, but it’s just hard to breathe.
Whenever I’ve felt trapped in a relationship, I think it was because I felt there was some restriction to my self-expression or freedom due to the expectations of that relationship.
I think there should be some restrictions on what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior within any relationship. For example, not showing up for an agreed meeting with a friend because you can’t be bothered is a form of self-expression, but not one that usually leads to a lasting friendship.
However, when you’re feeling trapped and you can no longer see any real benefit in continuing to meet the expectations of that relationship, then resentment and frustration can start to creep in.
Speaking your mind when you’re feeling trapped
I’ve had friendships and family and work relationships where I felt I had to be perfect – to not disagree or say something that might be offensive. Not a great tactic for creating a healthy relationship.
What I’ve found is that always needing to be agreeable is a good way – no, a Fantastic way *note the capitalization of the F* – to create the experience of feeling trapped with someone who could otherwise be a great partner, be that a friend, family member, colleague, or lover.
So I’ve learned to speak my mind, which has created a sense of inner freedom in me at all times. It’s also been a great way of screening out people who aren’t compatible with my true personality – they’ll either love me or hate me, but at least they’ll see who I actually am as opposed to a false representation.
What to do if you’re feeling trapped
Now that we’ve got that basic principle out of the way, here are some questions and ideas to consider if you’re feeling trapped in a relationship.
#1 Knowing the power rule. Here’s a perhaps uncomfortable but very real truth about power dynamics within relationships:
The person who is more willing to leave always has the most power.
Simply knowing that this rule of power exists allows me to assess whether power is unevenly balanced to too great of an extent in any relationship.
For example, if my partner constantly threatens to leave if I don’t do what they say. An even more subtle power-play that I’ve received is when someone has a habit of walking out of a room during conversations at the very moment when I’m trying to communicate an important point.
#2 Asking: why do I value the person? Most people don’t want to be the plan B – so if you’re keeping someone dangling on the hook of expectation but meanwhile have bigger and better plans, this may slowly eat away at your own sense of freedom. It’s called cognitive dissonance, and even the most seasoned player can get it.
The more I can line up everything in my life so that it’s the Empire State Building and not the leaning Tower of Pisa, the better things seem to go and the more pumped I feel about life.
If I’m feeling suddenly trapped, I try to consider: my values, my partner’s values, my life vision *and how they match it*, and whether I’m being honest about it.
#3 Keeping your eye out for the Drama Triangle. An infant needs to be looked after. This is the same for somebody who is severely mentally disabled. However, I wouldn’t agree that a partner who cannot get their own life in order is your responsibility.
Sometimes, people will use emotional manipulation consciously or subconsciously to keep you in a relationship with them.
I keep my eye on this by reminding myself of the Drama Triangle. I think of the Drama Triangle as a triangle where at each of the triangle’s 3 points is a different word: victim, rescuer and persecutor.
It’s of my philosophy that the moment you adopt one of these roles, you take away your self-empowerment and make others responsible for what you do or do not do.
For example, if someone is playing the victim, then they’ll make you their rescuer or persecutor. However, I think a healthy relationship is about handling your own shit and inviting others into your life.
If somebody is there to rescue you or be saved to by you, then you become responsible for them and are probably more likely to create the experience of feeling trapped at some point.
You also know they’re more likely to blame you for not saving them or allowing yourself to be rescued. You could also be persecuted when things turn sour.
I’ve even been in a relationship where I was the victim being persecuted, and I almost lived for the chance of being able to prove that I was in the right and she was in the wrong. F-ed up, innit? The Drama Triangle creates many tangled vines.
#4 Asking yourself: am I scared of physical or vindictive consequences? I’ve seen when someone both loves and fears a partner. This can lead them to overlook obvious signs of manipulation and/or abuse.
Perhaps their partner has a bad temper, is physically bullish, or has emotional or financial leverage. Finding others who have been through the same situation – even if it’s online or by reading articles or YouTube videos – can probably help to put this type of situation into context and help with coming to a decision.
#5 Asking yourself: am I scared of what third parties will say or do? Sometimes your social circle, religion, or culture can cause you to feel as if you don’t have a choice or that you have limited options.
For example, I’ve coached a client who was bound by familial agreements to follow through with an arranged marriage. He looked for people who were dealing with similar situations and found very useful information that helped him to work out the worst-case scenario and balance it against his goals in life.
#6 Asking: am I living at my edge? I first heard of the phrase ‘the edge’ in a book called The Way of The Superior Man by David Deida. I later even wrote a book about it too. I find myself using it in a broad range of contexts because of how important it is, however, I think few people really internalize the edge as a life philosophy.
Think of the edge as a literal edge beyond which is a steep fall to where your fears lie. I think the challenge for us as parents, friends, workers, and artists is to confront this edge in order to keep growing as a person. For example, when I wasn’t pursuing challenging and exciting goals, I wasn’t really living.
Even when I had a secure long-term relationship with a beautiful girl, it fell apart for me, and became a psychological prison, because I’d stopped trying to challenge myself as honestly as I could. When I feel like a prisoner to a relationship that doesn’t serve me, I always ask myself first whether I’m not just a prisoner to my own fears.
#7 Talking to a close friend or family member. I had this habit where I would walk for an hour – and sometimes hours – with a close friend of mine.
It amazed me how after our conversations I would have more context on a nauseatingly claustrophobic home situation. What I saw as idiosyncratic to me would often leave him nodding in fervent agreement: ‘yeah, bro I get the EXACT same thing at home too!’
#8 Looking at your social life. Again, I love the principle of ‘start with yourself.’ It’s my belief that it’s unhealthy to not have a wider network of contacts. I think nature has designed us to seek diversity, and this variation helps us to align and realign our beliefs and patterns of behaviors so that we don’t fall into neurotic habits.
When I had no friends, it was hard for me to appreciate my parents or my sister. And when my social life was bubbling, they all felt more approachable and vibrant. Whenever I have the feeling trapped emotion, only to realize I’d not been out with a friend for too long.
It’s hard to not feel depressed or trapped when you don’t have friends. The world seems more scary and judgmental and you can take out this fear on those closest to you. Psychologists will tell you that having a good social life, two or more close friends, and also family is a key part of emotional health for most people.
#9 Ask yourself: would I actually miss the person? If the answer’s a hard no, then you have some telling data. I have pretty good emotional control, but I still find myself wanting to cut people off for some silly slight that I think they made towards me: some comment, expression, or reaction. Sometimes I’m over-reacting and take time to calm myself, but other times there is a pattern.
Just asking myself honestly whether I like spending time around someone lets me know whether I would benefit or not from leaving. I’ll ask myself if I’m always left with more energy after interacting with a particular person or less.
#10 Ask yourself: what are my responsibilities? I’m not a father, but I’ve seen that even a mother can start to feel trapped by her infant if she has no life for herself.
However, she can’t exactly pack up and dust her hands of him on a moment’s notice. Likewise, for any person who is vulnerable, it may be your responsibility to make sure they are looked after in some way.
#11 Ask yourself: am I scared of commitment/responsibilities? I believe we live in a time when the easier route and meteoric rises are worshiped in media and as part of social norms than is the path of diligent practice and slow growth.
I like to remind myself that with more responsibilities comes richer meaning and fulfillment in life. The opposite path is one where I take no responsibility and always chase the new thing – trying in vain to ignore the emptiness as it widens inside.
When you’re feeling trapped in a relationship, it can be confusing. However, I think it’s a feeling that beckons deep and committed introspection and honest assessment in order to grow through it.