Recently I have had both clients and friends asking the question: “How do you know when it is time to leave a relationship?” It’s a great question, but one that is hard to answer. It is one that I have struggled to answer at various points in my own life for both friends and myself. To complicate it more, as a therapist, generally you do what you can to help the couple gain the skills to stay together – rather than helping them split up. This is in part because it is rare when a couple comes in and says, “Help us split up.” Often they both want it to work, or if not, only one really wants to leave. Helping a couple stay together is a valid goal if both parties want to stay in the relationship, but is more problematic when this isn’t so clear. Then it is more useful to ask the question, “What is the higher purpose of this relationship?” “What will enable both parties to empower themselves, to grow, learn new skills, and understand themselves better?” While sometimes the answer to this is an event, like making the decision to leave a relationship that is too constricting – many times it is the process of learning to support each other, of learning new ways of being, that enable the couple to behave in ways that are more ‘enlightened.’ The staying together as a couple becomes secondary to the more primary goal of growth. This is in harmony with the 12-step slogan, “Take the action, let go of the results” – meaning, take the high road, live with integrity, learn, and see where you are led. So often our own egos don’t know what is best for us. It is only through the act of living, of making mistakes, staying too long, leaving too early, that we learn who we are and what matters to us.
As I look back on my own relationship history, initially in my twenties, I left relationships too soon. Once the romance died down and the conflicts took off, I found that I didn’t have the ability to ‘work it through.’ So due to my own lacks, and perhaps also because it simply wasn’t time for me to ‘settle down,’ as well as due to the lacks of my partner, I moved on without fully resolving what was happening in that relationship. I didn’t know how, and was both uninterested in being stuck, and too hungry to be nurtured, to stay put. Because I became aware that I would ‘jump ship’ into a new romantic situation too easily (at least in my mind), I made a decision (over 20 years ago) that I would not do that again. And I didn’t. I closed the relational back door that I had always left open before and faced some parts of myself that I could not have conquered any other way.
While on one hand, because I didn’t know that I could say, “This isn’t enough, I need more,” I accepted behavior that I would never put up with now, on the other, I learned about letting go, patience, picking battles, talking about my feelings and a multitude of other skills. I learned that I was okay without the new bloom of infatuation. I learned that no matter how perfect the other seemed, there were things I needed that were absolutely not negotiable. Ultimately I learned both relational skills and I learned about my own value. Had I not done the work of those relationships, I would not know what I know today. It is because of what I have lived through that I know the difference between love as learning without the ‘forever after’ and love as a sustainable and continuous life enhancing process. I developed the relational qualities in myself that I needed, and know what qualities the other must have to make it worthwhile for me. So for anybody who is on the edge of ‘do I stay or do I go,’ this is what I would ask.
If you want to continue, the first question is: Is your partner accountable? Meaning do they recognize that they have issues that have an impact on you and do they have a willingness to look at and deal with those issues? If not, you’ll be doing all the work to keep this relationship going. Of course the converse is also true if your relationship is going to function.
Next, are you learning as a result of this relationship? If so, what? There are many different things to learn. There is learning that involves some level of disappointment or deprivation, like perseverance and being happy without always getting what you need emotionally. There are empowerment lessons like learning to take care of ourselves instead of sacrificing our needs to our partner’s, or getting to the point where you can say, “I want more, this isn’t working for me.” There is learning how to put someone else first, like putting our partner’s needs ahead of our own, our parents’ or friends’. Or we might have to learn to be bigger, to conquer our fears or jealousies – to trust. If the relationship is to be satisfying long term, often what we are learning is to be vulnerable and communicate with more honesty.
There are many possibilities. Trying to figure it out can become a morass that you can quickly get lost in. Ask yourself what your life has been teaching you. Are you learning how to be with somebody, to get quiet and hear another point of view? Are you learning to ask for more out of your life – to not hold yourself back? And is what you are learning in your life in alignment with what you are doing in your relationship? If you are on a big self-empowerment path and your relationship keeps you small, what is going on? If you are in a relationship that you cannot leave, that is an entirely different lesson. What we are learning in relationships is often complex and not easily known without a great deal of self-knowledge, soul searching or perhaps help from someone else.
If you are ‘hooked’ and think you want to leave, but can’t, what is the hook? If you think you want to stay, but keep ‘running away’ what is the fear? Are you somebody who makes too many sacrifices? Or not enough? Are you somebody who thinks it is all the other person, or do you see your part? A big thing I frequently run into is people not really understanding how they get triggered by their partners and how they behave when they get triggered. For example, if I get upset with you, do I get mean or act as if only my side of the story is accurate? Or can I have empathy for both my own vulnerabilities and yours? After all, life and relationships are often not easy. If we are struggling, the other person is too. Can we recognize this and behave with as much love as possible?
For me, much earlier in my life, I had a significant amount of depression and anxiety. I had to learn to become more self sufficient and empowered, as well as learn how to stay in and work with a relationship when the ‘easy in love’ stage was gone. I had to learn what my triggers were and what baggage I had to let go of because it was mine and getting in the way. I had to learn when to hold the other person accountable, because what he was doing wasn’t okay. Ultimately, you want to be in a relationship where you can be loving and kind towards your partner’s wounds without diminishing yourself. It is a problem if you have to diminish yourself to make the relationship work. Can you put each other first, because your relationship is a priority? Can you can be open and vulnerable with each other, because without that kind of intimacy, sooner or later the whole thing will crash and burn or get distant and die. Eventually, that early bloom of love changes into something less exciting, but with great richness and nourishment.
It helps to understand what you are learning, to be able to decide if it is time to leave or not. I knew in one of my last relationships, that I had stopped learning and because my partner wasn’t interested in making any more changes, and because I needed someone more responsive to me, it was simply time to end it. That didn’t make the ending of it any easier, but it meant that it made sense. I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. Isn’t that what we all really want – to know that we are making the right choice? To know that we are leaving not because we didn’t try hard enough, but because we did? To know that we aren’t missing something big, that it isn’t our fault, and we aren’t making a mistake? And if we stay, don’t we need to know that it is worth it? That our partner values us, and we value them? That doing what it takes to make this relationship work is exactly what we want to be doing and a reward in and of itself?
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