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Why It Can Take So Long to Leave a Failing Relationship

Stepping out of denial and accepting a new reality.

Key points

  • The grief process can happen while you're still in the relationship.
  • It's important to process each stage.
  • Finding peace and acceptance takes time.
Source: PeopleImages/iStock

Aside from Emperor penguins, I think human beings are some of the most fascinating creatures on Earth. Our imagination and creativity have given birth to inventions that have drastically changed our lives. Today, we’re able to see other people through a computer screen even when we’re thousands of miles apart. We can order a grocery delivery from the comfort of our own home, and technology is so advanced that a computer program will create a PowerPoint deck or a job description in a matter of seconds.

Yet no matter how advanced our inventions, ChatGPT or any other kind of artificial intelligence will not end a relationship that we know has been over for a long time. In these situations, we can only rely on ourselves.

We all have an inner knowing, a voice that whispers the truth, and we tend to ignore that voice when it’s asking us to do something terrifying and uncomfortable, like end a relationship. Instead of listening, we will dig our heels into denial, and remain there until we have no choice but to see what can no longer be hidden and accept what can no longer be ignored.

But stepping out of denial and into the reality that our relationship is over doesn’t mean we end things on a peaceful note, far from it. Like everything around us, ending a relationship is a process. A grief process, to be exact.

Navigating grief while you’re still together

Perhaps you think of the grief process as something you experience after a loss, be it of a loved one, a pet, a relationship, or a job. But in reality, grief doesn’t recognize the rules or boundaries that you create to delineate the end of something; a grief process can begin even though you’re still sleeping in the same bed, and unless you’re aware of it and leaning into it, there might be more conflict and suffering for everyone involved.

Denial. Deep down you know things are not OK in your relationship, that something is “off.” Throughout your relationship, there have been massive red flags, but you’ve ignored them or worse, you’ve made excuses for them. “My partner just needs to grow a little, and things will get better,” you often think.

So you lose yourself in the day-to-day busyness of your life: your job, friends, family, children, etc. You blame yourself for that gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach, because you’ve chalked it up to you trying to sabotage your relationship.

But knowing something is off and then intentionally distracting yourself from it will only take you so far, because that which is suppressed eventually rises and leaves you with no choice but to confront it. When or how this happens is unique to each person.

When it happens to you, you admit that your sex life has all but disappeared, and that you’ve made excuses for it. “We’re just always so tired.” You see that you don’t really talk that much anymore, and when you do, it’s surface-level conversation. You realize their perspective on life is wildly different to yours, and that it annoys you. They worry about tomorrow, you’re a “go with the flow” kind of person. They get upset over trivial things, and you don’t sweat the small stuff.

You accept that you feel drained, frustrated, lonely, unheard, unvalidated, unseen, all of it, and the resentment builds until you transition from denial to anger.

Anger. This phase is tough and can last a long time, because anger is an all-consuming emotion that protects us from feeling all kinds of uncomfortable emotions. In this phase, there may be increased conflict and tension that escalates each and every time. Discussions become shouting matches with no resolution, and although things quiet down, the tension never seems to go away.

You villainize and blame your partner for everything. Their priority is work, not your relationship. They value money over health. They don’t seem to consider your emotions. They’re controlling. They’re insecure and selfish. They’re inconsiderate. They’re cold and they lack empathy. They’ve lied to you about important things.

The anger feels oddly good, because all of your unhappiness feels justified. It’s not your fault that things are not working out, it’s theirs, and therefore you don’t feel guilty for wanting to leave.

Ending the relationship in this phase is risky, because when you make a permanent decision out of temporary emotion, you can cause permanent damage in a temporary situation. Sure, you might feel empowered when you slam the door and walk away, but when the anger dissipates (and it will), you will be left with unanswered questions, feelings of doubt, and a lack of closure and peace. What’s worse, you may remain angry for years, stewing in resentment and upset that your partner never took responsibility for anything, and never apologized for being so awful.

Not having a peaceful resolution then puts your future relationships at risk, and your partner too may carry their own anger and resentment into the next relationship, and so on, each person then perpetuating hurt in the world.

But anger doesn’t have to be the last stop in a relationship. There is a path forward, a way to find peace and acceptance.

Sadness. I remember working with a client who asked me, “When will I know it’s time to leave?” It was a question only they could answer, so we talked about what peace would feel like and what closure might look like, and although it was hard for them, they agreed that leaving in anger would result in more hurt and suffering. They chose to stay, and we worked on shifting the focus of their thoughts, which meant they had to stop villainizing their partner and turn inward instead.

When you turn inward and reflect on how you’ve been showing up in the relationship, anger dissipates and gives you a chance to be really honest with yourself, and this requires a great deal of courage.

Maybe you realize you’ve been dependent on your partner for your sense of self-worth, that you’ve made them responsible for your feelings, and that you’ve unconsciously held them to high expectations. Perhaps you discover that you’ve done the same thing in every relationship, and that you’ve always blamed the other person for your unhappiness.

Know that none of this is easy—not at all. These revelations can be painful because they never turn up alone; they bring all of the emotions that you’ve been trying to avoid. You might feel guilt, shame, or disappointment. You may even feel a little angry with yourself. All of these emotions are valid, and once they are processed and released, you pave the way for sadness.

It’s completely normal to feel sadness, because you might be mourning a whole host of things: the loss of what you hoped for when you first came together, the expectations not met, the moments not shared, the connection never forged. It’s human to feel a great deal of sadness when you realize that, in spite of all the conflict, you shared many special moments and significant life events that you will always cherish.

The sadness may feel overwhelming, and having a therapist while you go through all of this would be tremendously helpful and important, but that may not be an option for you. So keep in mind that sadness, although painful, is temporary. It will pass.

Acceptance and peace. Finding acceptance and peace requires more than courage; it demands that you look upon your partner’s beliefs, perspectives, and behavior with love, compassion, and understanding. You might realize that it was never realistic to expect your partner to meet all of your needs given their own adverse life experiences, or their upbringing. With love and compassion, you might better see all the pain and suffering laying beneath their words and actions, and perhaps develop a whole new perspective on your relationship.

It’s a huge ask, I know, but an important one.

Seeing your relationship as something that had purpose and value in your life, regardless of the intense conflicts or arguments, is part of what ultimately paves the way for you to find forgiveness, and then peace.

How long it takes to step into this magical place will be unique to you, but you will know when you have arrived because anger and resentment will no longer be present, or even possible. Rather than constantly focusing on what you no longer want, you will feel pulled towards a new life and all the possibilities that it holds, and none of it will feel terrifying.

It may mean that you bid farewell to the old ways of showing up in relationships, and you move on with your life. Or it may mean that you’ll choose to stay, because you realize that there's hope after all, and that you're ready for a new relationship with the same person.

Either way, embracing the truth enables a way forward with no thought to what your partner owes you, but rather with love and gratitude for the growth opportunity that was offered.

Facebook image: - Yuri A/Shutterstock

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