Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

How to Leave a Relationship Emotionally–But Stay

Beware hasty decisions when unhappy in a relationship.

No list is long enough to capture the many reasons why men and women become unhappy in relationships, although most reasons can be boiled down to a few basic themes: too much conflict, not enough physical or emotional stimulation, and so on. For men and women who become unhappy with in a relationship, they often consider only two clear-cut options: stay in the relationship or break up. I’m here to suggest another alternative when the need applies: learn how to emotionally leave a relationship while physically staying in it.

If you’re unhappy in your relationship, it’s usually not a good idea to end it quickly except in cases of abuse or other extreme conditions. Too often, people break up impulsively and then later realize they regret it. (Enter hooking up with the ex, stage right). You probably know a few couples in your personal life – or can cite some celebrity examples – where their on-again, off-again dynamic suggests a fad going in and out of style. If men and women would learn to be more careful - and strategic - in their consideration of ending the relationship, relationships overall would be healthier, and there would be a lot less getting-back-together emotional drama among couples. Simply put, when you've been unhappy in a relationship for a while, you should come up with a plan to improve the relationship or consider ending the relationship.

Making sure the relationship is truly one you should end takes time. The first step, of course, is to identify which problems or behaviors from your partner bother you the most, and then have a serious talk where you outline what you need to change. In fairness, this process requires that you be open to listening to the problems your partner has with you, too. After a serious heart-to-heart, you need to give your partner a few months to work on the things you want to change.

I wish the first step was the only step couples ever needed in order to repair their relationships. Unfortunately, problems often persist as people frequently don’t want to do the dirty work to change. If you’ve given it a couple of months and the problems still persist, what should you do? End it?

For couples who have been together a long time – say, several years or longer – it’s often not a good idea to end the relationship even after a few months of not getting along. Having spent a significant chunk of time together, it is sometimes best to detach – or leave the relationship emotionally – without initiating a full-blown breakup. So, how do you leave someone emotionally while staying put?

Presuming that most long-term couples live together, leaving the relationship emotionally involves some crucial changes to your behavior that will impact the overall relationship dynamic.

Question:   Do you say, “I’m leaving the relationship emotionally?" Do you tell your partner what you're doing?”

Answer:     Don’t announce your thoughts or plans to detach emotionally. If you are asked, respond in an emotionally neutral tone – because that’s how we feel when we detach – and say, “I’m just taking some time to think about our relationship, and I’m also taking care of myself by focusing on [insert work, school, going to the gym, etc.]." Remember, this is isn't a game. You detach not to elicit attention but to gain clarity on where the relationship is headed.

Sex and physical touch

If you are leaving the relationship emotionally, let me be clear about the boundaries: no sexual contact of any sort, ladies and gentlemen! If you break this rule, you simply cannot emotionally detach from your partner.

Socializing together

When you leave the relationship emotionally, understand that it means that you are still technically in the relationship. This phase doesn’t mean that you’re free to seek out new partners or sexual trysts; it means that you are free to spend more time without your partner by your side. During this phase, you don’t watch your favorite television shows together, go to parties together, or share upsetting experiences from your day. During this phase, you need to get those needs met by friends or family. What can you do together? You can share meals at home, discuss superficial events of the day, and cover all the day-to-day planning and errands. The key difference is that a detached individual engages in pragmatic activities with their partner – but stays away from all of the emotional ones.

Asking for help

Especially when you live with someone, occasions inevitably arise when you need to ask your partner for help. In the past, when you were in the relationship emotionally and physically, it was expected to ask your partner for help when you needed it. Going forward, there may be a time when you need help with the computer or you want another person’s opinion on something. If you leave the relationship emotionally, you must go to others for help instead of your partner, particularly when the help you need takes the form of emotional support because you’re upset about something. When you detach from your partner, you don’t ask your partner to emotionally soothe you. Who knows, you may get that support back if you and your partner ultimately determine that you can come back together and function better than you were before. Until then, it’s time to look elsewhere for help.

What happens next?

Once you’ve made the major changes to emotionally leave the relationship (e.g., you’ve stopped being sexual and socializing together), you will embark on your detached journey. Sometimes, initiating detachment will only last a couple of weeks before your partner starts changing for the better. In this case, you can choose to dip your foot back into the relationship waters and see if the changes are lasting. Sometimes, however, you may need to be detached for months or even longer before you feel that things have changed enough to justify coming back together emotionally. On the other hand, sometimes after the detachment, you or your partner will realize that there’s little left to the relationship, and that it’s time to move on.

Conclusion: Leaving a relationship emotionally is not the ideal practice, but detaching in this way can sometimes help to make you feel more mentally organized during a stressful time in a relationship. Ultimately, the important point to remember is to never rush making a big decision.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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