The question of whether to end a relationship, be it a 20 year marriage or a 5 year commitment, is a painful and complicated one. It is a question that often implies loss, fear of judgment, sense of failure, self-blame as well as glimmers of hope and change. At times we avoid this question, we ask others to answer it, we act on it impulsively, we never stop asking it or we recognize we have no choice – we have to ask it of ourselves.
Here are some issues and underlying questions that you may find helpful as you consider this life decision.
The Importance of Knowing Why You Want to Leave
If you are thinking of leaving a relationship, it is important that you know why. Understanding your past and present informs the decisions you make for your future. No matter what the circumstances of the relationship you are ending, understanding it offers something valuable for you to know about you.
- How did the relationship go from awesome to awful?
- Why couldn’t you change him/ her – why did you think you could?
- What made the good times so good? What made the bad times so bad?
- What part did you play in the loss of hope in this relationship?
The Importance of Your Partner’s Knowing Why
Except in those cases where interaction and discussion could be dangerous, it is important for your partner to know why you are thinking of ending this relationship. The very thought of this may make you want to scream, “How could she/he not know?” The reality is that a painful familiar relationship is often preferable to change or the fear of being alone. Denial can be a powerful and long standing survival strategy. It makes communication crucial.
- In some cases, informing the partner offers the possibility of understanding what happened – the part that both played in a relationship that no longer works.
- At times, informing the partner gives voice to your entitlement to live a healthier and happier life even if the other still refuses to listen.
- Sometimes the other’s expressed pain feels like it disqualifies your question of going. If the expressed pain stirs some mutual understanding and atutnement, it may offer potential. If it stirs only guilt, resentment or pity – no one benefits.
- Sometimes informing the other offers the possibility that your partner may finally realize the gravity of what you are saying and ask for the option to try to work things out. Sometimes it actually works.
Eight Questions Worth Asking and Answering
1. Are You Safe?
- It goes without saying that if you are in a relationship that involves physical abuse, mistreatment or threats to your life or that of your loved ones- you are not safe.
- While it may seem obvious, we understand that in situations of domestic violence a you can often be frozen in place, can mistake relief from pain as happiness or can easily be fooled by the “ bait and switch” of apologies or promises to change to keep you only to have things go back to abuse when you stay.
- If a situation is dangerous, you may need professional guidance, legal help and a safe place to go to help you leave.
- Being clear about the need to leave a psychologically abusive relationship is difficult because the impact of psychological abuse is self-doubt, isolation, low self-esteem, confusion and even concern for the abusive partner who “can’t live without you.”
- Research suggests that what makes symbolic violence” so dangerous is that it is insidious and invisible. In an atmosphere of chronic criticism about outside friends, veiled threats, disdain, and projected blame, a person becomes worn down, compliant and guilty. They spend time apologizing or trying to be perfect because they lose their perspective.
- Referred to by some as “ Gaslighting,” psychological abuse is often intended to make the partner think he/she is crazy, over-reactive, or controlling.
- Often it is not until a person leaves that they realize that they have been abused.
2. Are You Personally Happy?
Because people often report wanting to leave a relationship because they are “ unhappy,” it is worth recognizing that no partner can be responsible for your total happiness. Research suggests that at least 40% of our happiness comes from our own intentional pursuits of life choices and goals.
- Are you sure that the problems you are experiencing as marriage or relationship problems are not projections of your own personal discontent, lack of life purpose, boredom insecurity, health, friendship or financial disappointments?
- Do you find that your relationship actually dampens the happiness you do generate on your own?
- Do you find that even when you try to bridge the happiness you have found at work, in recreation, with friends by telling your partner about it or even inviting participation, there is little interest shown or a critique that “brings you down?”
- A relationship should not deplete you of the personal happiness you generate.
3. How Realistic Are Your Expectations?
It is realistic to expect that there will be love, respect and a sense of mutual concern in a committed relationship. That said – How much do you really expect of your partner and how much does your partner expect from you?
In an interesting book perfectly titled, Everybody Marries the Wrong Person, the author captures the tendency to start out by idealizing and expecting perfection from our partners only to find out that they are far from perfect and actually don’t meet all our expectations.
The question is whether there is enough recognition to accept what is wonderful and a willingness to accept what is not.
- What if she earns a great income but is a very messy person?
- What if he is a great Dad but is very uncomfortable with socializing?
4. Do You Trust This Person?
- Is this person your confidante – you can tell him/her those things you might not tell anyone else?
- Can you be your messy, unhappy, tired, rude, unconventional self with this person and still know you are loved?
- Would you trust this person to care for you if you were hurt or ill?
- Can you safely know that you can tell this person about your mistakes as well as your secret dreams?
- Do you trust that this person is faithful to you as an intimate partner – do you have the same values about fidelity?
- Do you trust this person to forgive you – do you trust yourself to forgive this person?
5. Do your Need This Relationship or Do You Want It?
Most marriages involve love and need. Most also strike an important balance between being two independent people who also depend on each other. Is that balance off?
- Loving someone and being in a relationship by choice takes the edge off the small stuff. So he likes motorcycles? So she loves lots of pets?
- If you need your partner for safety, self-esteem, money, or status more than you like or love them – you may feel the need to change them. Your discontent may be very high because you feel you have no options – you have to stay.
- Is your relationship an addiction? Are you desperately “keeping another” to hold on to a sense of yourself at any cost and in the face of increasing negative physical and psychological consequences?
- On the other hand, is your partner so dependent on you that there is no separate space, no permission to be with separate friends, no room to have a different thought, opinion or interest? Is excessive dependence smothering the loving?
6. Is Intimacy Possible in This Relationship?
What solidifies a relationship and connects partners in a way that makes their connection special is the intimacy they share. If there is no longer a wish to be affectionate, to laugh like insiders, to feel close, to be intimate even in the broadest non-sexual terms and/ or no interest on the part of your partner to be intimate or reclaim it– the relationship is without the emotional net that makes life together emotional nurturing.
7. Is This Relationship More Work than Wonderful Connection?
People often ask if their relationship should be so much work. They despair that no matter what they or their partner do there is no feeling of harmony, mutuality, easy discourse or recovery from disagreements.
While most people need to work at a good relationship, a good relationship never takes from either partner more than it gives.
- It is emotionally draining if contention, disagreement, inability to negotiate and unhappiness are the norm more than 70% of the time.
- It is tragic if the partners suffer the reality of being very poorly matched in important spheres of their lives. Her delight to be in nature and live in the country is his horror. His wish for children is nothing she can understand.
- It is a problem if a partner is starting to feel “ I don’t like who I am becoming in this relationship.”
- It is difficult if the positives no longer balance out the negatives.
- It is a loss when there is little memory or desire to remember what once was good.
- It is tragic if one or both partners refuse to seek outside help.
8. What Does Love Have To Do With it? Everything and Nothing
- Most people enter into a marriage or a committed relationship because they feel love for and love from their partner. However they define it, love is the ingredient that makes them want to share their lives together. It is the ingredient that keeps them trying, seeking help, believing and making it through even at the most difficult times.
- Unfortunately there are times when there is love…. but despite exhausting all means of repair there is a degree of violence, pain, disdain, betrayal, conflicted values, incompatible life choices for which…love just isn’t enough.
Angry couple photo available from Shutterstock.