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Ending a Troubled Relationship

The only thing worse than ending a relationship is being unable -- or unwilling -- to recognize when it's time to let go. Here, three experts weigh in on this difficult decision. 

Q: "How do I know when it's time to end a troubled relationship?"

A Psychologist Responds
Henry Cloud, PhD
Author of "Necessary Endings"

There are a few reasons we stay in difficult relationships far longer than we should: fear of the unknown, fear of hurting the other person, fear of the pain we'll feel when we let go. 

Sometimes we keep investing in the relationship because we're attached, and then we start telling ourselves that since we've invested so much, it must be worth something -- and around and around it goes.

Now, I'm not someone who advocates jumping ship the minute things get hard. I believe that our primary need in life is long-term relationships, and the only way to build deep, sustaining, nourishing ones is to weather and resolve many conflicts and problems. We need to keep hope alive, as hope is one of the greatest virtues we have. But it's critical to distinguish between hoping and merely wishing. Hope is objective -- it requires evidence and concrete reasons to sustain it.

For example, if you're doing something different, like seeking counseling or changing your patterns of interacting, then there is good reason to have hope. Wishing, on the other hand, springs only from desire, not from any objective proof. 

You may want your partner to treat you better, for instance, but if nothing has changed, you're most likely indulging a fantasy. So when you say, "I hope our relationship gets better," ask yourself, Why do I have hope? What reason do I have to think that things will be different this time?

To know when it's time to move on, you have to get to what I call the pruning moment -- a point where you recognize your relationship is never going to be the way you want or need it to be unless something changes and that today may be the enemy of your tomorrow, keeping you from what you want most. This creates both energy and fear, two things that can kick you into gear.

This ability to get to necessary endings is a skill you can learn. First, understand that chronic pain or discontent is not normal. 

Second, allow your misery to motivate you to action, to address what is missing or wrong. 

Third, when you find yourself motivated but afraid, get the support you need from others to follow through. 

Fourth, become comfortable with the discomfort of letting go. 

And last, use the next phase to do a postmortem and figure out what happened and why, and what specific changes you can make going forward. This way, ending the relationship becomes an opportunity for growth, as opposed to the recycling of an age-old and unexplored pain.

Life keeps moving like a stream. Those who are able to flow along with it and let certain things go in order to embrace what may be in store for them in the future will be better off than those who hang on to formerly good things too long.

A Counselor Responds
Kim Olver
Author of "Secrets of Happy Couples"

If you're not happy in a relationship, you have three options: Change it, accept it, or leave it. You can't change another person's behavior, but you can adjust your response to it. You also have to decide which problems you're willing to live with. Leaving, for me, is a last resort. Ask yourself, If this person never changes, would I still want to be in the relationship?

To determine whether it's time to move on, think about what you most want to happen. Is this something you can control? If the other person were doing exactly what you wanted, how would you feel?

Then ask yourself if you can change the way you perceive what's happening. For instance, do you have to take it personally when your husband leaves his dirty socks lying around, or can you just chalk it up to one of his bad habits? (And we all have them.) Does your partner's teasing signify aggression -- or playful affection?

If you've tried everything and you remain dissatisfied, angry, and frustrated, then it may be time to move on. But we can only do so when we're conscious of why -- and when we realize that we can't wait for everyone else to change for us to be satisfied in our relationships or our lives.

A Memoirist Responds
Stacy Morrison
Author of "Falling Apart in One Piece"

My first tip for knowing when it's time to move on? When your husband tells you he wants out. (Kidding. Sort of.) I was washing salad greens in our Brooklyn home one evening when Chris said he wanted to end our marriage. Just like that. 

I begged him to help me understand, to tell me why. The hardest part was realizing that knowing why wasn't going to help me move on. And once I could separate myself and see the situation from his perspective just a bit, I began to be able to let go.

One thing that helped me move on was living by small moments, which my young son made easier to do. I also started paying attention to pieces of good luck, like getting a cab in the rain. But I cried a lot too. Tears come with the territory.

I tell other people going through a divorce or a breakup that you have to choose a different prize than the one you want most at first, which is to be right. And the crappy consolation prize is to be wronged, and people often pick that one too. But really, what's the reward in that?

I truly believe that my divorce was the best thing that happened to me. We tend to look at loss as being a mistake, as bad luck. But it doesn't have to be. 

You have to experience your whole life, not just the good stuff. And during the hardest times, you stumble across gifts of tremendous beauty.

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