Ending a Relationship*
* If your relationship involves abuse or danger, this is not applicable to you. This is for non-abusive,
un-dangerous relationships that need to end for emotional and practical reasons.
Sometimes the wisest and kindest decision a person can make is to exit from a marriage or serious relationship. Too often we see the media portray this sort of ending in dramatic scenes involving sudden realization, other lovers, retribution…..and feelings of success as well as a sort of power, afterwards.
These images confuse a person who is actually trying to leave with respect and integrity. In real life ending a serious relationship may be a healthy choice, but it is also a death, a loss and a trauma for BOTH people.
The urge to make the other person “wrong” is very strong. This is an understandable urge to anesthetize one’s own pain and loss. Neither person is wrong. Both parties benefited in many ways or the relationship wouldn’t have persisted as long as it did.
Finding a new partner immediately, or having a secret exit plan involving a new partner, are also ways that people try to avoid their own pain and loss while leaving the other person to feel betrayed. This doesn’t work out well for either party, as the new relationship will carry the guilt, grief and trust issues that were dodged in the exit.
How does one leave well? What elements help both parties to respect what they created together, and possibly even stay friends by avoiding wounding each other? No one way is perfect, and loss is still involved, but here are the useful elements I have seen in 30 years of watching couples navigate these rough waters:
1. Stay away from blame and fault. Avoid drama. Avoid threat.
2. Do not make the decision when you are upset, wait for calm, even if you have to take more time or seek separate counsel.
3. Be ready to speak about both the wonderful things about the partnership and the things that didn’t work for you.
4. Admit to feelings of loss and confusion.
5. Allow for a period of time to pass between conversations so both of you can calm down and think about what you want to say to each other.
6. Be willing to hear the other person’s hurt or anger, if you are making the decision without them. (you do not have to accept abuse or prolonged rage)
7. Own the responsibility for allowing things to happen that weren’t right for you.
Recognize that if you stayed in it longer than you now think was wise, it may just have been a learning process for you about how hard to try, how long to hang on.
So what do I actually SAY?? Here are some good ways to verbalize your decision:
“ I am realizing that I am trying to make you into someone that you are not. I may need things that you are not naturally able to give. I have realized that I want to stop trying to force this situation.”
‘I respect the time we have had together and I value it very much. I learned so many things from this relationship, that I will treasure. Still, I am thinking that trying to make this relationship go into the next stage of life is wrong. I am confused about exactly what I need, but I think I need to figure this out as a single person, not a couple.”
“ We have been fighting for so many months that I have to admit I am just afraid of living with this level of conflict. You have may well been “right” in many of the fights, yet I am needing to leave the relationship and examine why I have been involved in so much conflict. That is not what I feel I want to create in my life.”
“ I do not like who I am becoming in this relationship. I have watched myself be paranoid, antagonistic and secretive. I can understand why you do not like the impact of these qualities on you---I do not like being this way. I need to withdraw from the relationship and work on myself.”
“ I realize that I am not giving you what you really need. There is nothing wrong with what you need, it just isn’t what I have. I care about you as a friend and want you to stop being hurt by my not fully trusting or meeting you. When I look deeper, I see that I am wanting to stop failing you. I want to make a respectful and honest exit. Please do not call me for a few weeks, I need time to think about this and feel my decision.”
“I have realized that our connection is bringing out the worst in me…and possibly the worst in you. We used to connect around our companionship and shared goals, but now it seems like I can’t see those things anymore and all I focus on is the negative. I have tried to stop that and have a better attitude, but I haven’t been successful.”
“Now I am realizing I need to attend to myself and withdraw from being a couple. I need to understand myself better and see if I can unravel my own fears and needs. I can do this best alone because that is a little less complicated.”
“ Some things have happened between us that have damaged my trust. Although I may have some fault in the process of those events, I have realized that I will not be able to repair trust with you. Rather than keep myself in a situation where I have to live with a sense of distrust, I am leaving the relationship. I also do not wish to trap you in a situation where you will never be trusted by your partner. Both of us need a better future than that.”
After a respectful ending, and a few conversations about that decision, it is a good idea to take some time separately to feel the impact and make the ending “real.” Future plans to be friends should happen later, after some time has passed.
What happens after you separate? If you take some time away from the dating game and give your own process some attention you will likely go through a period of loss and grief. It is natural to question your decision and begin to remember the “good times” more vividly. Good self-care is done by reaching out to friends, letting grief move through you honestly and trying to remember that both good and bad experiences happened with this partner.
The typical formula is to expect the grief process to go on acutely for about a month per year the relationship lasted. A twenty year marriage might evoke an almost two year grieving period, while a two year relationship might ease after two months. Never-the-less, time and understanding will calm the acute feelings.
You should, with the support of good friends, be able to feel somewhat lighter each month as time goes by. If your grief seems to be beyond this formula, talking to a therapist can help the process more forward. It is possible that your grief experience is more complex than this particular loss---older loss feelings may be involved or unexplored losses from earlier times may have been triggered.
Self care during loss and grief—
1. Reach out to close friends and tell the story. Allow people to show concern and spend time with you when you aren’t cheerful or entertaining.
2. Write about your feelings. Allow a journal to be your sounding board for daily ups and downs, and the more extreme feelings of blame, rage, hurt…that you kept out of your break-up. Allow yourself to be unreasonable on the written page.
3. Notice even small positive changes.
4. Allow the physical bond with the ex-partner to unravel. This is a biological event and should be respected. Spending time in close proximity, or making love again “for old times sake” can feel good for a moment but it re-bonds you. Be honest with yourself about the ramifications of re-bonding.
5. Try very hard to stay on a good self care regime as far as eating, sleeping and food. These primal areas can be disrupted by loss but they also make loss worse and create more trauma when they are disrupted for more than a few days.
6. Exercise- you NEED those endorphins!
7. Calm alcohol and other addictive substance use. Keep yourself from sliding into a pit of physical depression by eating and drinking in extra healthy ways.
8. In all ways, be loving to yourself. Soften judgment, delay decisions when possible, reach for support and distraction. Remind yourself of the many blessings and gifts in your life. Allow new forms of nourishment to come your way.
Anne Allanketner LPC 503.944.9373