Most people who commit to a long-term relationship feel very positive about their chances of staying with their partners. They realize that all relationships wax and wane, and do their best to look at the good while ignoring the bad. Unfortunately, those feelings can change over time, and many intimate partners know that, for them, the relationship is over.

The majority of people in committed relationships don’t make those choices rashly. Most often, they’ve done everything they can to stay in love with their partners, but have not been able to regain the positive feelings they once knew. If both partners have come to that conclusion together, the parting can be amicable and they may even stay friends. But if one partner wants out and the other is still fully into the relationship, the exiting partner must now face the sorrow they are likely to cause and deal with his or her own distress at creating it.

In my four decades of working with couples, I have seen so many people suffer the wounds of these kinds of conflicts. They ask me for guidance in how to leave without causing any more distress than necessary. They must deal with their own guilt as well as with the heartache of a person they once loved enough to make a commitment. Those feelings are compounded if they have known themselves what it’s like to have been left behind in their own past. They want to know if it is ever possible to end a relationship with dignity and mutual respect.  

Most everyone who has loved another deeply does not want to leave hurtful memories behind or deal with someone who harbors anger and resentment towards them. They didn’t start this current love relationship with the intent of abandoning ship if the going got rough. Nor did they ever expect that they would someday no longer care for the person they sincerely chose. Now they are faced with going back on promises and leaving their partners bereft and wounded.

The truth is that, for many people, the expectations of the partners in a new intimate relationship change over time and promises made in earnest fade. Most relationships face unexpected challenges as they mature, and often catch the couple unaware. They may unconsciously repeat destructive patterns that have not worked in prior relationships, or choose partners for the wrong reasons, blinded by attractions that fade over time.

It is all too common for new lovers to put their best foot forward by hiding things about themselves they fear might turn that new lover away. If the relationship gets a sound foundation, perhaps those imagined or real flaws would be more easily overlooked. Once those behaviors emerge, however, the new partner is likely to feel betrayed and foolish, legitimately wondering what else might still be hidden. Sometimes the damage comes from outside pressures that neither partner could have predicted at the beginning of the relationship.  

Even relationships that start out authentic and honest can develop serious difficulties over time. Communication problems, disparities in desires, or changing needs can all create problems that neither partner expected or had the capacity to solve. For whatever reason, the partner who has lost faith in the relationship begins to pull away, sometimes silently, and sometimes with a barrage of criticisms leveled at the other partner.

The partner still fully into the relationship often doesn’t see or ignores the dwindling intimacy until it is obvious that the relationship is in trouble. At that point, he or she will begin to inquire and challenge, seeking some clarification. If the needing-to-go partner is uncomfortable or not quite ready for the conflict to arise, he or she might deny that anything is wrong, encouraging false hope.  

Being stripped of the status of “most-important person” is usually traumatic for the newly aware partner. He or she might initially respond by trying to invalidate the severity of the problem while simultaneously trying to erase the cause for concern. Those twin behaviors, unfortunately, can make the partner who is trying to get out feel trapped into a temporary recommitment. That response may promise something that has no chance of happening and will only cause more distress later when the need to end the relationship resurfaces.

Another common response is to strike out with anger and blame, holding the abandoning partner accountable for the relationship’s demise. Being dropped in status is not anything anyone wants to experience, and feelings of being displaced, erased, or replaced, create emotional pain and self-doubt. Sometimes the rage and counter-invalidations cover more vulnerable feelings inside that are much too vulnerable or painful to share.

So, if you have found yourself in a relationship that has lost its meaning for you, what can you do to minimize the stress on your partner and on yourself? You are certain that you’ve given it all you can but it’s time to say goodbye. You don’t want to leave heartbreaking scars behind, create an enemy, or to damage collateral attachments. Mostly, you just don’t want to be seen as a bad person. How then, can you proceed with the best possible outcome for both you and your partner?

Step One:

Look at yourself first. Is this a pattern for you in your past relationships? Do you over-commit and then find yourself in deeper than you intended? Do you try doing everything you can to make your partner feel more important than he or she actually is, just to keep that person close? Do you withhold asking for the changes you need in a relationship and then resent the other for not knowing what they are? Do you put partners on pedestals by ignoring things about them that you will eventually be unable to bear? Do you over-accommodate and then resent your sacrifices? Are you careful enough to be discerning up-front by knowing what you need and what you can offer?

You will want to do your part and search for your own accountability so that you are open and willing to share that when you approach your partner. Tell your partner why you did not deal with the problems in the relationship earlier, and how that lack of honesty may have led your partner to believe you were more attached than you were. If you can do that with sincerity and directness, you are less likely to encounter defensiveness and counter-blame.

Caveat: Hopefully you are not already involved with someone else. Overlapping relationships severely complicate an interaction that is already difficult. If you have begun a new relationship and your partner suspects, don’t lie about it. That will only make things worse. It is, of course, a two-edged knife. Though it is painful in a different way to have been dumped for another, it may not feel as badly as being unlovable. At least you will not have bought your own freedom by sacrificing your partner’s sanity.

Step Two:

Tell your partner when there is open-ended time to process whatever needs to be shared. Tell him or her that you have something painful and difficult to share and that you are taking full responsibility for not having talked about it sooner. Make sure you are authentically regretful and remorseful about making a choice to keep things seemingly okay when they were not, and that you realize how hard you have made it by waiting until there was no hope for change. 

Ask your partner if he or she can try to listen to the ways you have separated out of the relationship and why you did not share your feelings earlier. Don’t blame or bring up the things that your partner has done to you, even if they are relevant. Right now, you are focusing on taking full accountability for setting your partner up to believe that you were more in than you were. Be direct and concise. Tell him or her that you are sad for any heartache you have caused and that you want to do everything you can to make the separation as easy as possible.

Step Three:

I fully realize how hard it is to do, but be prepared to listen to your partner’s responses without getting defensive or resorting to counter-attacks. Your partner is likely to be angry, embarrassed, wounded, and confused. He or she will say things that are intended to make you feel worse about yourself, or plead to be given another chance. It is highly likely you’ll be interrogated about whether or not you have already found someone else and if that is the reason for your decision. Your job is to listen as long as your partner needs you to, to stay compassionate, and to hold on to your own self-respect. It’s going to be hard, but remember your goal is to make it as easy on your partner as possible.

Your partner may get very angry and want to hurt you back. You can expect behaviors like telling you to get out, calling mutual friends to let them know what you’ve done, threatening to hurt themselves, pleading for more time and effort, or even trying to seduce you. These are understandable responses to the unexpected loss and rejection. Grief has many vehicles for expression, and you have probably seen your partner’s way of dealing with other losses in his or her past. This situation is no exception.

It is crucial that you stay calm, self-accountable, and supportive. No matter how much pain your partner is in or how he or she comes back at you, do not change your position or make promises you cannot keep just to make the situation easier. Stringing your partner along when you are certain about leaving can be tormenting even if it makes the current situation more bearable.

Step Four:

Offer to do whatever you can to ease your partner’s distress over a traumatic loss he or she cannot stop from happening. Ask him or her to tell you if there is anything you can do to help ease the situation. Some partners want you to leave immediately, some will want you to stay in hopes you will change your mind, and some will leave you and seek refuge for themselves elsewhere. Depending on how long you’ve been together, there will be more complications to sort out and memories to put away. Even when the personal part of a relationship ends, there are attachments to friends and family, shared possessions, or even mutually beloved animals that can prolong the process of separating out.

Your partner will likely go through many rounds of pain, anger, confusion, pleading, and grief. He or she will bring up the situation over and over, trying to make sense of what has gone wrong enough to be so irreparable. You may get asked the same question repeatedly or get endless phone calls and texts. Be courageous and compassionate without giving your partner any false hope that you will return.

Step Five:

Learn from what has just happened. Search for what you might have seen earlier had you been more aware and discerning of both the needs of yourself and of your partner. Know that it is so much easier to be fully authentic from the beginning. You could have known better had you understood yourself deeply and could have predicted your own capacity to sustain intimacy. No matter what has caused this mutually painful situation to happen, you don’t want to rack up points for who was right or who was wrong. Negative judgments of yourself or your partner will only keep you from knowing how to do it better the next time around.

Make some sacred promises to yourself that you will learn from this experience and that you will be more open and more communicative with your next partner from the beginning of the relationship about who you are, what you need, and what you can contribute.

There are the few remarkable people who are highly tuned to understand when their lovers are losing interest, and courageously confront the situation early on. Once they realize that the relationship is over for their partners, they move to make the separation a more noble process. Those I’ve known who live by the rule that trying to keep someone in a relationship who doesn’t want to be there will not keep love intact. They bear their losses with dignity and self-respect, and are committed to go forward into their next relationship without resentment or bitterness.

Sadly, those remarkable souls are not in the majority but are still enviable role models. Most of us, facing an unexpected and humiliating loss, need to vent, to process, and to retaliate when someone we have fully trusted betrays us. The goals are to intend to love more successfully in the future, armed with a deeper knowledge of self and an absolute commitment to be more courageous and authentic the next time around. 

You are reading

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En Guarde—How Defensiveness Can Destroy Love

The six most common defensive behaviors

10 True Gifts of Love

Can we do anything now to turn things around?