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15 Ways to Leave Your Lover (With Love)

Dr. Lissa Rankin examines how to lovingly end a relationship.

Key points

  • Partners can love each other and still need to end the relationship.
  • During a breakup, it's best to maintain respect by not acting with contempt.
  • After a breakup, one or both parties may need time to grieve, get angry, and heal from wounds.

I just reread Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir Eat, Pray, Love, and I found myself tearing up when I read, "The only thing more unthinkable than leaving was staying; the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving."

You see, I remember that feeling. I'll never forget that feeling.

I Am Divorced

I have two ex-husbands and a now a third husband (thank God the third time's a charm). This is not something I'm proud of, but it's part of who I am, and each of these relationships mashed up together in the butter churner of my life to spit me out the other end as the person I am today. And I've never been happier.

But back then, when the only thing more unthinkable than leaving was staying, when the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving, I couldn't imagine I'd ever find joy again. I only knew I had to try, that I couldn't give up on this little girl dream of sharing my life with someone who would let me be whole — without giving up a part of myself to squeeze into a relationship that didn't quite fit.

Lately, my path keeps crossing with people who are unhappy in their marriages or miserable in relationships with loved ones, and I can't help thinking that life is too short to live in pain, just because we said, "I do."

Don't get me wrong. I'm the product of parents who were married for 40 faithful years before my father died, and I feel blessed to have been raised in such a stable home. I'm hoping to offer my only daughter (to whom I gave birth with husband #3) the same kind of stability I had. But not at any price.

Leaving Sometimes Requires Leaping

As a Pink Medicine Woman coach, I help shepherd people through times of change that often require big leaps of faith. Leaving a lover is often just such a leap. One of my clients had been married for 22 years to her high school sweetheart, and things were... good. Good, not great. Comfortable, not close. Friendly, not passionate. Easy, not intimate.

For years, she went through the motions in her marriage, feeling like a vital piece of herself had been doped up with halothane. She then went through a phase of being more proactive — reading self-help books, going to see marriage counselors with her husband, signing up for workshops. But nothing changed between them. He was content with life as it was. She just wasn't.

When I asked her what was missing from her life, she said, "connection" — and burst into tears. In that moment, she knew — she had to walk away from her marriage, even if it would hurt the kids, even if her husband would feel rejected, even if she would suffer financially. Some small, long-silenced voice from within was screaming so loud that she knew she had to take a leap of faith — by trusting that after she walked through the fire her divorce would require, she would arise a phoenix.

You might think my client and I are both cavalier about leaving a marriage, but trust me, neither of us ended our relationships without intense soul-searching that included the full range of self-doubt, introspection, fear, shame, guilt, panic, and ultimately, peace that there was no other path to joy but through the pain.

As Yusuf Islam says, "To be what you must, you must give up what you are."

If you or someone you love is facing the end of a love affair, let me share a few things I've learned along the way, aimed especially at those doing the leaving.

15 Ways to Leave Your Lover (With Love)

  1. Acknowledge the love, honor the love, feel the love, but recognize that love is not reason enough to keep a relationship together. You can love each other and still break up.
  2. Understand that relationships are sacred contracts, and some contracts simply come to a natural end.
  3. Listen to the signs from the Universe when they are guiding you to act in ways that might go against your value system. Trust that this guidance will lead you back to love — even if it leads you out of a marriage or committed relationship.
  4. Accept responsibility for your part of the relationship, and avoid the blame game. There are always two parties involved — period. He might have cheated on you — and that's not cool, but if you haven't had sex with him in two years, this probably isn't a complete shocker.
  5. Treat your lover with respect, even if you no longer wish to be together. Do your best to avoid acting with contempt.
  6. Give yourself a break. You're doing the best you can under the circumstances, and even if you make mistakes, every life experience is a growth opportunity.
  7. Look past how your lover may behave on the surface when you're walking out. Try to see the loving spirit that lies within each of us, even as your hurt partner may lash out, project onto you, dig into your insecurities, speak biting words that sting, and act out.
  8. Let yourself grieve. Even if you're the one doing the leaving, you're going to have to go through the fire to come through the other side into a place of peace.
  9. Grant your lover some space. Don't expect to go from zero to sixty through a divorce to a friendship on the other end. Allow time for both of you to grieve, to get angry, to heal from wounds. Then focus on friendship when the wounds aren't so fresh.
  10. Remember that love is more important than things. And self-respect and dignity have more value than houses, bank accounts, and cars.
  11. Have faith in yourself. You are whole. You are enough, just the way you are.
  12. Give your lover the benefit of the doubt. If your partner says something that could be interpreted two ways -- one that is hurtful and one that is loving or neutral, assume that the loving one is true. Too often, we create conflict out of misunderstanding.
  13. Give yourself permission to feel joy. It's okay to bubble over with laughter, passion, a sense of liberation, a giddy freedom, relief, and even love for someone else. Just because you're making a choice that may hurt someone else doesn't mean that those feelings aren't your birthright.
  14. If your freedom brings you joy feel it, revel in it, luxuriate in the silky softness of it, spread your wings and flutter them. But don't let your partner know how good it feels not right away. Respect the relationship enough to keep your newfound glee quiet around the person you're leaving.
  15. Set goals but release attachment to outcomes. You might wish your break-up would happen a certain way — that things would be divided on your terms, that a friendship with your ex will follow. But trust the Universe and the Master Plan. Surrender to what is meant to be, rather than fixating on creating a particular outcome.
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