Loneliness is a killer, as science suggests, and as almost all of us know instinctively. Instead of separating from an established partner, it is often more advisable to try to grow individually and collaboratively to make the relationship work. Few have ever said, "Happiness is the result of severing ties," or, "Happiness is mastering the art of divorce." Connecting with others is a major way of experiencing ourselves as happy, and thus is part of life. On the contrary, those who hop from one relationship to another seem most confused and unhappy.
However, I would not be in my wonderful marriage now if I had not been able to separate from those I had loved before. My willingness to leave relationships did not make me happy at the time, but staying would have been disastrous. We all know of relationships that ought to end — sooner rather than later. Even couple's therapists advise separating in cases of abuse, lack of personal freedom, and pervasive suffering. Life is too short to be unhappy, and yes, we can be too unhappy to be happy.
This post is not about whether to stay or go, but to examine the “how” of reaching the resolution of separation. What happens before making and following up on the decision to leave? In my personal and clinical experience, I don’t think that people follow a rational formula, even if such a formula works very well as a predictor of separation. For example, according to couples researcher John Gottman, you are likely to get a divorce if your ratio of positive to negative exchanges is off.1 It should be 80 to 20 percent. So if you observe your relationship objectively and realize that your expressed negativity hits 21 percent, you are already in the danger zone. However, I have yet to learn about a couple that ends a relationship because of such knowledge, even if their ratio is very off and has been for a long period of time. As helpful as our knowledge of the ratio can be to save a relationship — learn to accept the 20 percent of unavoidable imperfection and focus on increasing positive exchanges — we are unlikely to leave a partner based on reason alone.
Instead, we usually need to feel that we have reached a limit. According to my observations, here are a few steps people take to set this feeling free:
1. Assure your physical safety.
The feeling of having reached a limit can be prevented if leaving is too high a risk. So, first we need to have the assurance of physical safety. People don’t leave when they are dependent, powerless, and lacking means. It is physically dangerous to leave a person who is erratic and controlling. To feel like leaving, the necessary means and a safety plan need to be in place. Be deliberate and wise if your body is at risk.
2. Become confident.
The feeling of “enough is enough” can also be prevented if we feel psychologically threatened at the thought of separation. Many report in psychotherapy that they are afraid of regret, social isolation, stigma, or of being inherently unlovable. “I can never find another partner the way I am,” “I am too difficult,” and “I am not good enough for anybody” are just some examples of how we can stifle ourselves and remain in a prison of pain. With the help of friends, family, or a therapist, become your own best friend, so that you can sense yourself in the moment when someone crosses the line.2
3. Establish a value system.
We all need to have standards against which we must rub ourselves to feel any limits. If anything goes, how can there ever be an outcry? Many young people do not think about their value system as they are blinded by their initial feeling of love. List all the psychological and spiritual values you know and rank them. How high is kindness, respect, forgiveness, mutual caring, mutual empowerment, mutual inspiration, sex, affection? Love is the mutual giving of care, acceptance, attentiveness, and understanding, but what exactly does this mean to you? Wrestle with these ideas, and write all this down.
4. Distinguish love from need.
We can love someone, but not get our needs met. It is important to clarify for yourself what needs you have and if they can be met. If you are at all human, you have a few “old needs” that cannot be met presently — or by anyone but yourself. However, don’t listen to those who think we must always be completely self-contained, self-reliant, and empty of any expectations; they should all marry robots or get a dog. Once you can state your needs unapologetically, you have a chance of sensing when they are not being met.
5. Identify deal-breakers.
Now that you have a value system and know your needs, define what constitutes an unacceptable violation. Here is a scenario: A woman, used to being ignored and yelled at for years, figures that the most important value is life itself. Suddenly her partner loses control to such a degree that her life is threatened. In this very moment, she decides, “If I can get out of this situation alive, I will leave him and leave him for good.” And that’s what she does. She realizes later that her standard was very low, but even the lowest standard is better than none.
Nothing gets pushed into the category of ‘’urgent” when we are too afraid or oblivious to limits. Take steps to your empowerment, dare to know yourself, and define what you value and need. Imagine a world in which you can be you, cherished and fully alive. If you cannot imagine such a world, create it on a small scale with someone who wishes to support you in this endeavor. When you are free to feel you, you have the freedom to feel what’s not you. Only now can boundaries be set and limits imposed. Ironically, this freedom may just save your relationship.
1. Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992). Marital processes predictive of later dissolution: Behavior, physiology, and health. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 63(2), 221-233. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.52
2. Andrea F. Polard (2012). A Unified Theory of Happiness: An East-Meets-West Approach to Fully Loving Your Life, Chapter 7: Confidence. Boulder: Sounds True.