In my last post, I suggested that someone in an "OK-but-not-great" relationship may not be ready to leave it but may still be craving something more, a situation primed for adultery or "shadow relationships." In this post, however, we'll leave those possible outcomes aside and examine the unhappy situation that prompts it: how do you decide if and when it's time to leave a relationship that hasn't completely failed but isn't fulfilling either?
Many couples survive for years, even decades, like this. Such relationships are comfortable, like an old, tattered robe—and before you scoff, let me make clear that this is nothing to be dismissed lighty! At some point in your life, the thing you will likely want the most from a relationship is comfort and security. The trick is that you can't find these things with just anybody—it needs to be with a person who makes you feel that way based on an underlying feeling of happiness and serenity. But if you often find yourself wondering if you'd be happier with someone else, you'll never be truly comfortable or secure with your partner—and neither will he or she.
If the relationship is horrible, of course, leaving is relatively easy (assuming there are no children or financial entanglements to complicate things), because you truly want to leave. It's when the relationship is not horrible, when it's pretty good but not great, that the decision is more difficult. Even though it may be easy to imagine better relationships, it can be very hard to give up the OK one you've got—especially considering the pain and trouble of a break-up. (More on that later.)
Does this mean that you should leave your partner at the first sign of dissatisfaction? Of course not! No relationship is terrific at every moment; one reason commitment is so valuable is that it carries us through the less-than-terrific times. It's when the less-than-terrific times become the norm, and you don't anticipate any terrific ones in the near future, that you naturally (and justifiably) start to think of alternatives. Commitment can carry the weight of keeping a relationship together once in a while, but it can't do the job on an ongoing basis—there has to be something of value to a relationship itself to support the partners' commitment to it.
If you're in this situation, ask yourself why you're staying in the relationship. If the answer is anything other than "because I can't imagine being happier in the long term with anyone else," then you might want to think about leaving. There may seem to be "nobler" reasons to stay in a relationship, such as a sense of obligation or duty based on gratitude or mutual assistance, but unless this gives you a deep sense of fulfillment, they can't ground a relationship. It may sound selfish to place happiness as the most important consideration in a relationship, but it's not—that's what relationships are for. You have no obligation to stay in a relationship that doesn't make you happy; the only obligation you have in such a case is to be honest with your partner about your concerns and, if it comes to it, end the relationship with sensitivity.
Think of it this way: would your partner want you to stay in the relationship simply because you feel you "should"? Would you want him or her to stay for that reason? True love cannot be based on obligation; it has meaning only when given freely.
So, if you do decide that you want out of your unsatisfying relationship, but you're finding it hard to actually break it off because of the pain you (and your partner) will have to endure, here are several things to think about:
1. Yes, there will be pain when the relationship ends; even though it wasn't great, it was still pretty good, so there are some warm feelings on both sides that will be lost. Just keep in mind that, as with any break-up, the pain will fade, but you have the rest of your life to find happiness with someone else. (And so does your partner.)
2. If you're not satisfied in the relationship, it's likely that your partner isn't either. (Hopefully, before you decide to break up, you would have discussed this with your partner; the reasons for the end of a relationship should never come as a surprise to either person in it.) If so, then you're not doing either of you any favors by holding on, extending the dull pain of dissatisfaction just to prevent some sharp short-term pain.
It is all too easy to be lulled into a false sense of comfort and security by an OK relationship, and it is certainly easy to procrastinate ending it by rationalizing staying or putting off what you don't want to admit is inevitable. But if you believe you could be happier with someone else, then you owe it to yourself—and to your partner—to consider ending the relationship (especially before you do something more hurtful, such as cheat).
For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts, see here.