Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

The Delicately Messy Art of Ending Relationships

The wisdom of the three-way serenity prayer will save you grief.

I’ve just drafted a book called “Doubt: A Natural History; A User’s Guide,” much of it centered on the Serenity Prayer, a masterpiece of brief decision-making guidance, 26 words (Setting aside God) that corner us squarely with two of the three options we face in any frustrating situation. It would be nice if the prayer included the third option but it gets ungainly when it does:

Grant me the serenity to accept what I can’t change in a relationship, the courage to try to change what I can in a relationship, the prioritizing impatience to leave a relationship that I can neither change nor accept, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Three options:  In any frustrating situation we can take it serenely, try to change it courageously or leave it.  There are of course, many variations on how to do each of those, for example 50 ways to leave your lover, but ultimately those are the choices, take it, leave it, try to change it. Floodlighting them helps you gain the wisdom about which one to go with in any particular situation.

I do wonder about the serenity prayer’s ordering of the two options, serenity and courage.  Yes, I suppose at first we should serenely overlook whatever is frustrating. During the honeymoon period that’s relatively easy. And then, if we can’t simply overlook it then we should try to change it. 

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And if that doesn’t work, then what?

Maybe go back to serenity if you can. Lots of couples and couple’s counselors say that a relationship matures when both parties give up on trying to change each other, and with practice, get to where they regain a sobered acceptance of each other as is, that sustains them past the honeymoon period.  Partners just figure out how to tuck in their elbows and make it work.  So maybe the order is honeymoon serenity, courage and then back to sustainable post-honeymoon serenity.

Still, sometimes sustainable serenity just ain’t happening and instead couples enter a period of unpredictable and amplifying oscillation, strained efforts to achive the serenity to accept, whipsawing with ever-fiercer courage to try to change each other. 

You pledge to just accept each other, but you can’t seem to hold to it, and then there’s some outburst, some escalated insistence on the other person changing.  Keep that up for long enough and you exhaust each other, and then prioritizing, you decide to call it quits, dropping your campaigns to accept or change each other, and just forgive and forget, letting go.  If you can.

Giving up on the relationship you’re really no longer in an appropriate position to influence your partner. You surrender your standing, a word we can borrow from the judicial system, meaning a stake in the outcome and therefore grounds for making your case. When the relationship ends, you no longer have skin in their game, and they no longer have to listen to you. They can say, “Look, give it a rest.  Don’t try to influence me any more. I’m not listening. Go do your thing; I’ll do mine.”  

Relationships, therefore often end with a strong demarcation, as we go from throwing our full last-ditch weight behind arguments for the other person to change, to just letting them go do their thing elsewhere. We become most inconsistent, insistent and resistant before becoming least on all fronts. Sometimes relationships die with a whimper. But often conflicts are starkest before withdrawn.

At best we go suddenly and cleanly from saying:  “No really, you’re wrong dammit, stop doing what you’re doing!” to saying “It’s your life, not mine. Who am I to judge how you should live?” 

But often that transition is much messier. Understandably, before we’ve ended it we take the escalated attacks quite personally, and attack each other for them:

  • I would change if you weren’t so damned hard on me.
  • I have to get this hard on you because you’re so damned stubborn.
  • You not changing is further evidence of how closed-minded and selfish you are.
  • You pushing me to change is further evidence of what a bully you are.
  • You don’t want me to change. You just want to win fights.
  • You not changing is evidence that you just want to win fights.
  • The other day you said you accept me as I am, and now you’re pushing me again. You’re like bipolar or something, or at least completely inconsistent. I can’t take your word for anything.
  • The other day you said you’d try to change and now you’re resisting again.  You’re like bipolar or something, or at least completely inconsistent. I can’t take your word for anything. 

My point here is that while any of the conflict might be evidence about our flawed personal characters, it needn’t be.  The patterns of behavior that would make us escalate are explanation enough, even if neither of us are jerks, stubborn, bullies or other villifiable types. The escalation simply comes with three-way serenity prayer.

We crave the wisdom to know which of the three responses is appropriate precisely because they are inherently incompatible. If they weren’t incompatible we wouldn’t need the wisdom. We could hedge, accepting, trying to change and leaving all at the same time, which is impossible:

  • Taking it means ignoring the problem because you’re invested in the relationship.
  • Trying to change it means focusing on the problem because you’re invested in the relationship.

You can’t both ignore and focus on the same thing simultaneously. Those two responses are inherently incompatible.

  • And leaving means neither ignoring or focusing on the problem but divesting yourself of the relationship.

You can’t both invest and divest in the same relationship simultaneously. Those two responses are inherently incompatible.

We can apply the three-way serenity prayer’s basic pattern to any kind of frustrating relationship or part thereof.  It applies to our relationships with our kids, parents, colleagues and friends. It applies to some portion of those relationships, for example deciding whether to keep arguing about politics with your friend, or to divest from that conversation but keep the friendship. 

It applies to your relationship with parts of yourself too, for example when deciding whether to push yourself harder to lose weight or to drop that inner debate and love yourself for other parts of yourself.

It even applies to relationships that end by other means.  I’ve written elsewhere about the value of forgiving dead jerks, but not live ones.  The dead are dead. There’s nothing left to be gained in arguing that they should have been different. The relationship is complete. The dead were what they were, end of story. It makes no sense to say, “had he been different he would have been different.”

But live jerks are another story. They’ve got potential to change still, so no wonder we would campaign, often aggressively to try to get through to someone we think is a jerk, or at least doing jerky things.

One way or another, the third option exists. Relationships end. At some point we realize “they’re dead to me.”

Mostly we say that with residual spite, as in. “That jerk was a narcissist. He’s dead to me.”   

Understanding the three-way serenity prayer and how it plays out in all relationship can make us less spiteful in the end, more wise even about when to give up on seeking more wisdom.  We become more agnostic and less regretful and/or angry about what went wrong, about whether we tried unconscionably hard to change them or not hard enough, about whether they were stubborn narcissists or just on a different path.

We can let go of wondering if they couldn’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t have changed? We can switch from “I must know” to “who knows?”  We just know that for the effort we made, they didn’t change.

My daughter and I have a mantra we picked up from some childhood dinnertime blessing. The line is “bless the folk who come and go.” We say it often. It helps us deescalate out of whatever campaigns we engaged in when trying to make a relationship work when it wasn’t working.

That and an appreciation for the fundamental challenges we face in seeking and creating compatibility goes a long way toward gear switching into forgiveness.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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