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Cutting and Running From Relationships Comes With a Cost

... but so does staying too long and getting stuck.

Key points

  • We all have our own bottom lines tied to old emotional wounds. When triggered, we may cope by leaving.
  • Often, this pattern is repeated over and over, causing us to miss out on positive opportunities.
  • To break this pattern, we need to put the past to rest and learn new skills to solve problems differently.
Anna Tamila/Shutterstock
Source: Anna Tamila/Shutterstock

What would cause you to leave your job or an intimate relationship? People often talk about quitting a job for more money or because they’re tired of the long commute. Or they leave relationships because there is too much arguing, not enough affection, and battles over money or kids. But while the content of our problems—the arguments, the commute—seems to be what ignites the desire to leave, the real drivers are the underlying emotions that these problems stir. We reached our bottom line, the emotional state that triggers the need to quit or flee, a pattern rooted in the past: When I feel X, I’m done.

The most common emotional drivers are feeling unappreciated, trapped or micromanaged, criticized or dismissed, or neglected. The fed-up feeling or desire to leave is usually linked to old wounds from childhood or hurtful adult relationships. When you get triggered in the present—feel continually micromanaged on the job or dismissed by your partner—you do what you’ve learned to do. The thoughts and feelings ramp up, but whether you physically leave or not depends—on whether you can afford to go or if it is safe to go, whether it violates your vows or religious beliefs, whether there are children involved, whether the urge is strong enough, driven perhaps by a midlife crisis and the powerful sense that time is running out.

And if you don’t leave for whatever reason, you may emotionally and mentally leave instead. You downshift the couple's relationship from partners to mom-and-pop parents, you both live in parallel and separate worlds, or you have an affair. You quiet quit the job and do the minimum you need to avoid getting fired—this is leaving nonetheless.

Upgrade your emotional software.

When you reach these bottom lines, your decision to go always seems like the right or only decision at the time; it’s what you need, what you deserve, and maybe you do. But if this is part of a larger pattern, your one-note, knee-jerk way of dealing with difficult problems and relationships may provide immediate relief, but at the cost of missing out on some of life’s gifts. The person, for example, who cuts and runs when on the edge of a commitment—the runaway bride syndrome—not only creates a life filled with disrupted relationships but never gets to settle into and experience the comforts of longer-term intimacy. The person who quits their job at the slightest whiff of unfairness or criticism not only never experiences a forward-marching career but never learns to work with teams or has the opportunity to find that change is possible by being assertive rather than angry.

It’s always valuable to periodically step back, look at the patterns that run our lives, and decide whether it’s time to do things differently. If you’re at that point where your old coping style is no longer working and you realize you are, indeed, missing out, here are some suggestions to help you upgrade your emotional software.

Identify your emotional triggers.

Knowing what you are most sensitive to can help you catch hurt feelings before they build, and sharing this information, with your partner or even your supervisor, can help others make adjustments that can change the relationship dynamic.

Find closure with the past.

Because these bottom lines are usually grounded and fueled by wounds of the past, putting them to rest can help drain some of their power. Here, you may reach out to parents or those who hurt you; it gives them the opportunity and helps them understand what was hurtful—say now what you couldn’t say then. Or perhaps talk with a counselor who can ask the hard questions to help you get a more complete and compassionate picture of those who hurt you or better express your hurt feelings.

Use your thoughts and fantasies of leaving as red flags.

You only reach your bottom line because you’ve been sinking for a while. To avoid reaching that point, you need to learn to address problems early, rather than sweep them under the rug, hoping they will magically get better.

Decide what skills and support you need to act differently.

Breaking patterns isn’t about stopping them but substituting old behaviors with new ones. For example, you may need to learn to be assertive rather than angry or to negotiate win-win compromises. Look back and see where you get stuck in resolving an issue, and then look for skills and support through counseling and books that can help you move forward.

While cutting and running is probably a more common pattern, some do the opposite—get stuck and stay too long—because they are afraid to leave the familiar no matter how difficult it is, feel overwhelmed, or blame themselves for the problem. If this is you, your challenge is the same—to find the support and learn the skills you need. Contacting community resources—shelters, mental health centers, as well as reaching out to family and friends—may be a good starting point.

The goal isn’t to swing to the opposite pole: To learn to stay regardless of your situation or learn to leave rather than stay put. Rather, the goal is to create more options in your life and have ways of handling problems that are less myopic, impulsive, unconscious, and more intentional, deliberate, and flexible.

Time to make some changes?

Facebook image: NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock

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