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3 Keys to Ending a Relationship With Dignity

Be sure you're certain, and then own your choice.

Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Long-term relationships and marriages end for many reasons, and rarely for no reason. If the reasons are not clear and understood by both parties, however (including the one choosing to leave), grudges and guilt will destroy good memories. The bad breakup could end up as baggage affecting future unions.

Relationships bring joy and sadness, delight and suffering. But what you remember about a relationship often depends on how it ends. If you are contemplating leaving a long-term relationship, there are ways to do it that can limit the collateral damage.

In addition to drawing from my own training (and personal breakups), I have compiled ideas from multiple other articles by psychologists on the topics of building and ending healthy relationships. Many of the best ideas come from Lloyd Thomas, Ph.D., and his Practical Psychology column:

1. Be certain you want to end the relationship. Don't threaten to leave in an effort to get your partner to change. Be sure there really is a lack of love, respect, or joy—and that it can't be revived. If there's still hope, get counseling to determine if there is a way to save the relationship. It is better to feel certain instead of angry when you make the choice to say goodbye.

What we like, hope for, and leave behind shifts through their phases of our lives. This can create confusion, disappointment, and resentment when it causes partners to grow apart. Talk about these changes with your partner. Even if you have trouble articulating what you feel, the process of trying to share your thoughts is vital.

All satisfying relationships list frequent and honest communications as crucial to their success. We know that sharing negative feelings can be risky. Your partner may get defensive. That is why it can be wise to call on a couples counselor or therapist to help facilitate the conversation.

I ended my last relationship with the help of a therapist. We sadly parted after two months of counseling, but neither of us felt broken. And after a year of healing, we were able to speak again, as friends.

2. Don't kill the relationship before you end it. Blame, criticism, accusations, complaining, and secrets may get you the end you desire, but the process will be unnecessarily painful. Don't find fault with your partner in an effort to cover your guilt for wanting to leave. Take responsibility for your choice. Identify what you want from a partner and from your life. If you are sure you can't find it in your current relationship, set a date to leave.

Many relationships linger for years after the energy has drained out. After this slow erosion, something happens and one partner "wakes up" to how unhappy he or she feels. You can usually trace a path of complaints, disrespect, and neglect leading up to this revelation. Try to recognize these signs and talk about them before the relationship is killed. Once respect is lost, it's not likely the relationship can be revived.

3. If you have to walk away, start with forgiveness. Forgive your partner for being human. Forgive yourself for choosing to leave. If you do so, you may still not be able to make a clean break, but you will be less likely to inflict harm as you walk out.

Don’t sneak out—unless you fear a violent outburst. Choose a private place to share your decision with your partner. Then prepare to stay calm if the response is anger or manipulative behavior.

Hopefully, you have had discussions, or even met with a therapist, before you reached this place, so your partner shouldn't feel shocked. But there could still be an emotional reaction. Don't attempt to calm your partner down. Be honest. Answer questions with kindness. Apologize for the pain they feel, but not your decision. Then ask when you can find the time to disentangle property and expenses.

You may still face a difficult break or divorce. You probably won't be friends. But try to show respect to the person you once loved—and who may still love you deeply.

Once you have begun the separation process, set your boundaries: If you have explained your reasons for leaving, you don't have to do it again. You might establish a friendship later but you need time to confidently establish a life apart. Plus, you might need to find ways to cope with loneliness other than appeasing it with your ex.

Finally, ask yourself what you have learned from the experience. Write your answers down so you can frequently access them as you move forward. You left for a reason. Make sure it helps define, and not derail, your next relationship.

Note: I wrote this piece in response to a number of comments left on my earlier post, What a Female Mid-Life Crisis Looks Like. I was referring to the crisis as a restless search for purpose and significance, but some readers related this phenomenon to a woman's decision to leave a relationship, and a few cited hormonal changes as a cause for women walking out. But while pre-menopause might cause mood swings and symptoms of depression, I have never seen a client or friend walk away from a healthy, fulfilling relationship. Those who left experienced communication or intimacy problems, or they had drifted away from their partner due to conflicting desires and expectations. The relationships had unaddressed troubles that began years in advance of their end.

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For more tips for women wanting to change their lives, read Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.

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