When It's Time to Let a Relationship Go
Doing everything they know how, good people sometimes can't stay together
Posted May 17, 2014
For the better of three decades, the media has tackled the problem of failing relationships and how they can be saved. The great self-help giants—John Gottman, Harville Hendricks, David Scharch, and M. Scott Peck—opened the doors and many other wonderful writers have followed. Separately and together, they have offered profound advice on how to choose the right partner, build a great relationship, and fix it when it’s faltering. Their message is heartfelt and well-intended: every relationship, given the right direction and hard enough work, should somehow succeed.
But sometimes, no matter how hard partners try, their relationships just don’t work. Quality partners who have lost each other usually feel terrible about hurting the other and saddened at their own feelings of failure. Because there is so little support out there to comfort them, they are often reluctant to talk about what happened. It’s just not fashionable anymore to give up.
The fact is, that many relationships should end. That is especially true when both partners have done all they can, aren't even sure why things went wrong, and are weary of trying. Sure, there may be a contingent of difficult people who just can’t get along with others for any length of time, run when intimacy deepens, or just prefer sequential relationships for their own reasons.
But, for the most part, new lovers want to please each other, to deepen their connection, and to overcome their barriers. When they've tried everything they can, and the relationship still doesn't work, it should not be about fault, shame, blame, or fear of trying again.
There are some real and justifiable reasons why good people cannot seem to get past their relationship difficulties, no matter how much energy and time they have devoted to each other. If they've done their best and end in appreciation of the other’s efforts, they need not to linger in the grief of failure, but to use what they've given each other to form a better foundation for the next time around.
If well-intentioned and caring people can, without guilt or blame, recognize the symptoms that tell them that they need to let go, they can end their relationship without resentment or feelings of wasted time. If couples stay too long in a relationship that can’t get better, they risk losing the opportunity to cherish the lessons they have learned together.
Here are the eleven most common symptoms that herald a relationship that is likely to end:
1. Small Irritations That Grate Over Time
Every new relationship has both good interactions and not-so-good ones. New lovers do their best to appreciate the naturally satisfying connections and ignore those that are irritating. Unfortunately, over time, some of the distressful behaviors begin to fester and are harder for the other partner to ignore. They can be little things like leaving clothes on the floor, being chronically late, or forgetting a promise.
There are also more serious ones like still staying close to an old boy or girl friend, getting a little too drunk, or not paying bills on time. When these upsetting behaviors hit a critical mass, the other partner may be unable to tolerate them anymore.
When the good connections are eroded by accumulated resentments, the relationship’s balance shifts in the wrong direction, and the good that once kept the partnership intact becomes buried under layers of disappointment and disillusionment.
2. Unacceptable Behaviors That Were Not Revealed at the Beginning of the Relationship
Most new lovers purposefully hide past behaviors that have negatively affected their other relationships. They hope that, once the new relationship is established, their partner will be more likely to forgive those old transgressions.
No matter how tolerant a new partner may be, there are also certain late confessions that can destroy even the most desirable of relationships. The partner who has bought into believing that the other is trustworthy in those crucial areas, may be unable to accept past behaviors that challenge both that they happened at all and that they were concealed in the first place.
Here are some common examples:
- Large debts that must be eventually paid out of mutual resources
- An unmentioned child
- Past affiliations with less-than-desirable characters who might crop up again
- A prior marriage
- An inheritable disease
- An intrusive and controlling parent lurking in the background
- Any past hidden behavior that might be unacceptable to a new partner can be a deal breaker when it is finally revealed. Whether one partner should tell another about them can vary by the seriousness of the issue and whether or not its aftermath will ultimately affect the new relationship.
These common examples can be hard to endure, and it is up to each person when to share them. There are also very serious issues that must be shared up front, even though the risk is high. For instance, if a potential partner has an STD that could threaten health, a vindictive ex-wife or husband, or a prior felony conviction that might affect the future.
3. Mutually Exclusive Important Needs
When caring partners are first together, they accent the ways they can love each other, make allowances for differences, and try to push away as-yet-unrevealed needs in hopes that the deepening love between them will ultimately resolve the situation.
Sadly, some partners find over time that they cannot live with certain crucially important different needs or desires. Some of the most common are different sexual appetites, disparate dreams, or how to deal with prior partners, but there are many others. How should our money be allocated? What is our ideal place to live? How many children, if any, should we have? Do we take care of our parents? What are our criteria for friendships? How much time away from each other can we tolerate? How do we communicate and can we resolve important conflicts?
These potential differences rarely come to light early in a relationship. It is only when resources are pooled that partners begin to reveal what they can live without, compromise on, or are unwilling to change. Those differences need to be sorted out with mutual respect and support, but often bring out behaviors that neither partner could have anticipated, nor can live with.
4. Diminishing Illusions
Oh, the blindness of new love. The partners who relish those early moments will hold on dearly to the joy of their bliss. They strive to overlook flaws, and embellish those qualities that make their new partner bigger than life.
It is totally normal for those exaggerated illusions to diminish over time and the partners grow to know each other more deeply. What is considered highly desirable at the beginning may have a negative downside that isn't revealed until the relationship matures. For instance, a partner dedicated to his or her mission in life may seem marvelously impressive, but then disappoints that partner by too often prioritizing that commitment over the relationship. A very attractive partner who dedicates a great deal of time maintaining that result might seem too self-interested. A person wonderfully careful about not over spending can, over time, appear stingy and cheap. A passionate partner who is initially highly sexual may be much less so as other priorities emerge.
A person who promises less and delivers more can be a joy, but it’s a rare quality. New lovers don’t usually focus on potential disappointments. When things quiet down, the partners are in line to make new appraisals of what is good, what needs improvement, and what may be unacceptable.
5. External Stressors
The synergistic energy of a new relationship appears boundless. The couple’s connection makes more than the sum of the parts. Abundant in the energy to face challenge, they feel they can face any crisis, unexpected or anticipated.
Unfortunately, resources are not endless and too many stressors can erode the deepest of commitments. Major illnesses, accidents, work demands, loss of financial stability, family needs, grief over loss, or a series of uncontrollable disappointments can wear away at a couple’s ability to cope. If those stressors continue, they may lose faith in the relationship’s capacity to survive them.
Stressors stretch a couple’s capacity to learn and grow. If they cannot triumph over them, they run the risk of finding each other inadequate. Finding fault with each other’s reactions and responses, they will begin to lose trust and separate to solve their problems alone. Sometimes there is just too much heartache, and any relationship can go down when too much is too much.
6. Power Struggles
When love is new, both partners are willing to compromise. They make decisions together, securing each other’s opinions and striving for agreement. Sharing the power to make decisions, they become an integrated team creating mutually-agreed-upon solutions.
As the relationship matures, one or the other partner may express his or her desires, biases, and prejudices with more intensity. Too often, this process results in reciprocal defensiveness with both partners may resort to defending their positions and trying to pressure the other into complying.
What might have been a mutual decision to spend all of their time together may become a problem if one partner wants more time alone and the other wants to share that time with others. For example, the more social partner may now want to bring other friends into the relationship, or spend time away without the other partner. Perhaps one partner needs quiet, separate time, leaving the other feeling lonely and abandoned. Either may have used sweet seduction, gentle coercion, or invitation in the past, but now has lost patience and uses more intense persuasions. Perhaps either may threaten consequences that are, in reality, hidden power plays for control. Hurtful struggles replace past compromises as each vies to win the game.
Power struggles can result in partners just walking away, ranting in anger, creating desperate pleas, or using guilt as a bludgeoning stick. They may not even realize they are behaving that way, but it is clear that what seems like an innocent invitation has now become a demand with a clear “or else” behind it.
If power struggles persist, couples go from being a team to adversaries on opposite sides of the playing field. Too soon, they begin to save themselves at the expense of the other’s needs.
7. Becoming superficial
It is hard for anyone to be totally authentic and open in a new relationship. Keeping things light, surface, and non-threatening is more common behavior. But, as love grows, successful couples begin to deepen their communication and take more risks in sharing their vulnerabilities and flaws. They are willing to be known in more vulnerable ways and to listen more deeply to each other. That richness of depth in communication and sharing becomes the couple’s signature of love.
It is all too common and terribly sad when partners cannot go beyond superficial interactions. Without the courage or capability to allow their core selves to connect, the relationship will fall prey to shallow connections over time.
There are many reasons why lovers are afraid to connect at a deeper level. Insecurity can make them afraid that their partners will love them less if they know too much. Perhaps, when they've tried in the past, they have had bad experiences and felt rejection, abandonment, or invalidation.
If they've tried in their current relationship and not been well received, they may have recoiled and returned to acting in ways that seem less threatening. As intimate conversations become more difficult, a couple’s chance of sharing hearts and souls in a deepening way begins to expire. Soon, they are more likely to share who they really are with others, rather than with each other. Fearful of scarring the relationship further, they stay with comfortable and non-threatening words and behaviors.
Over time, their interactions become predictable rituals, requiring less and less effort. To others, they may appear to be totally compatible, but they are really just repeating known and secure habitual behaviors. In time they will become susceptible to new and more intriguing experiences.
Constant discovery of the other partner’s internal and external transformations is the foundation of long-lasting, deepening relationships. Because partners in new relationships are usually “more than enough” to satisfy each other, they often don’t realize that their own independent growth is a necessary requirement for staying in love.
If a couple has made every effort to know one another deeply and comes to the end of that discovery, they will begin to take each other for granted and put less energy into a dull and habitual relationship. Taking the position of “aren't I good enough as I am,” or “You knew who I was when we met and it was okay then, wasn't it?” are rationales that cover the lack of interest in continuous growth.
Very often one partner moves ahead in his or her evolution and the other steadfastly stays the same. If no amount of requests, pleading, or threatening changes that pattern, the person who was once enthralled will feel entrapped in same-old-same-old, and needs to move on.
Relationships have two major dimensions, growing and scarring. If a relationship constantly scars and doesn’t grow, the emotional scarring will eventually pervade the relationship and destroy it. If the relationship both scars often but continues to grow, it will be constantly in flux, with partners who alternate between hurting and healing. These relationships often continue for long periods of time but usually eventually exhaust the partners who are in them. When a relationship seldom scars and is in constant transformation, the partners within it are lucky people who will probably never lose interest in each other.
The last possible combination is a relationship that neither scars nor grows. On the surface, it may seem a magically compatible, quietly successful union, but the lack of excitement and energy observed can be a powerful warning sign that there is trouble brewing. The partners within it may have become robotic and predictable creatures who soon learn each other’s every phrase, action, and thought. They no longer need to pay much attention to know what is going on. There are no surprises, no challenges, and no growth.
These people seem to go through life as if in a house of mirrors. As long as there is no conflict, they do not color outside the lines nor feel their energy diminishing. If their passive behavior is confined to the relationship, they will eventually have little to say to each other, and even lessened passion. If they are getting their needs for transformation elsewhere, the contradiction between their behavior within and outside of the relationship will eventually erase one or the other.
10. Self-Serving Escapes That Become More Important Than the Primary Relationship
Addictions are the most notable examples. Addictive behaviors are simply compulsive, urgent indulgences that take one partner away from the other and cause long-term damage to an intimate relationship. Whether drugs and alcohol, social engagements, involvement in sports or body fitness, or excessive work commitments, they are competing relationships that take precedent over the primary one, and drain its energy. A partner on the other end of an addictive mate is not given a vote to keep the primary relationship intact. Only the partner who engages in the addictive behavior can make the decision to re-prioritize the energy that he or she is spending elsewhere.
The triangles between two committed people when one is addicted to something, or someone, else will always diminish the unique bond between them. Whenever something or someone becomes more important to one partner than to the other, the relationship will be threatened. If the addictive partner is not willing to look at the cost of his or her decision, the partner deprived of a vote will eventually become distressed enough to disconnect.
Any escape that competes, diminishes, or threatens a relationship should be fair play for exploration and repair. Remember, the common resources of a relationship can only be distributed by mutual agreement if the partnership is important to both. One person cannot unilaterally decide to use those resources without the permission of the other without destroying the sanctity of that agreement.
11. Escalating Misunderstandings and Misassumptions
Many people in maturing relationships forget how to listen carefully without jumping to conclusions, especially with regard to what their partners are actually feeling or thinking. They believe that familiarity has entitled them to thinking they know everything they need to about the other, even if one or the other has changed.
Life’s challenges can steal people’s energy away from their relationship and put its exploration on a back burner. Very often over time, the partners believe they no longer have to make an effort to renew their interest in new priorities. They continue making assumptions based on old or incorrect data, and miss crucial changes and meanings that could alter their responses.
Soon, the couple’s communication consists of laconic phrases and inaccurate assumptions. They lose interest in each other and fail to resolve misunderstandings. As these destructive interactions multiply, the partners may no longer try to untangle the mess and let the layers of ignored emotional debris accumulate.
Perhaps these warning signs could have been addressed earlier and the relationship would still have had the vitality needed to reconfigure it. But many couples, with the best of effort and intentions, have been unable to stop themselves from destroying the love that was once there. If they have tried their best for as long as they were able, and still found themselves unable to triumph over their relationship heartbreaks, they must leave one another with respect and gratitude, and take the lessons learned as sacred bounty to use them in their next relationship.
“Many mistakes but no regrets,” would be a wonderful way to end every relationship that has outlived its lessons. To have traveled a journey that began with hope and ended with sadness is not a failure in life unless the partners use blame or guilt to erase what they needed to learn. When the parting occurs, and both genuinely respect what they have shared, a failed relationship need not imply a failed life. Very often, when successful in the next relationship, many people realize that their current positive outcome was a direct result of what they learned from the relationship they lost.
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