We all start relationships with the best intentions. If it is a couple’s relationship, we hope that it will last a lifetime, one in which we will share many happy memories and adventures. When it is a friendship, we hope to build an unbreakable bond that will provide support and companionship during both the hardest and the most joyous seasons of our lives. When it is a work relationship, we hope that the journey will be filled with learning opportunities and professional growth.
Given all of this, it is quite disappointing and heartbreaking when we come to the sad realization that the relationship is no longer serving us well. In romantic relationships, this may be when we feel our needs aren’t being met despite our communication of them; or when we recognize that our life goals aren’t in line with our partner’s. In a friendship, we may find ourselves always being the person who reaches out to initiate any sort of communication or to make plans; or our friend may consistently fail to respect our time, boundaries, or choices. In a work relationship, we may find ourselves investing more time or effort into the goal; or covering for the other person more often than we would like to.
The tricky thing about these situations is that, like most issues, they are not black-and-white. Our partner, who is always running late and keeping us waiting, is also fun and adventurous. Our friend, who struggles to make time for us since having kids, is a wonderful person whose preoccupation makes sense. Our colleague that we have to cover for has great ideas and tries his/her/their best. Above all else, we usually have some sort of affection for these people that defies rational pros vs. cons, good times vs. bad, practical vs. not.
This is why we end up telling ourselves, “I can’t end relationships.” But at the end of the day, we know deep down when something just isn’t working. Often, we’ve known for a long while. We’ve brought up our issues more than once, hoping for a change that we could live with. After our requests, suggestions, or questions falling going nowhere, we’ve waited and debated, processing the inevitable. When we think of this relationship, we know it’s not fulfilling us the way we want it to. In some cases, it is because, ultimately, we are not compatible in that way with the other person’s priorities, communication style, or lifestyle. Neither person should have to change to make it work. In other cases, we see the other person provide what we need to other people or other aspects of their/her/his life, but not to us. We know it’s time to walk away. We know it’s over. But we hesitate. We delay. We feel ill at the thought of it. We know it’s for the best, but we don’t want to. Something stops us, and we just can’t take that leap.
What is stopping you from ending a relationship?
1. You are afraid of being alone:
If you have come to believe that it is better to be in an unhealthy relationship than to be alone, then you are setting yourself up for some heartache. I get it; we’ve all been socialized to fear “dying alone.” In actuality, the odds are very low that the loss of one relationship will result in us being completely alone forever. Even if it did, it is truly better to be alone with yourself and build or maintain your relationship with yourself than it is to be with someone who makes you feel lonely by not understanding, respecting, or prioritizing you.
Our “relationship status” in one aspect can also impact how confident we feel to let go of another: if we don’t have close friendships or working relationships, the idea of leaving our romantic partner feels more overwhelming, and vice versa. The reality is that losing one interpersonal relationship will not render us solitary, but it can feel that way. Sometimes, we can begin to feel that this person is all we have; usually, because we have made that person a priority, whether consciously or not. We’ve spent less time with our friends because we’re in a relationship, or we’ve focused more energy on one friendship than our others, or we’ve built our lives around our jobs.
2. It is difficult for you to confront and set boundaries:
This one can be especially tricky in workplace relationships, where there may be office policies in place and office politics at play. Having an amicable working relationship can make a difference in your entire work environment, and your work is how you clothe, feed and shelter yourself. If you run your own business with another person, the process of separating could be convoluted and emotional, with peoples’ investment and income on the line. This can lead to “going along to get along,” letting comments or late reports slide, feeling overworked, and/or feeling underappreciated.
In relationships in our personal lives, there are various reasons why confronting and setting boundaries is difficult. This can be because we are in the habit of people-pleasing, or because we haven’t been supported in our boundaries in the past. We may have been raised in a household without them or involved in activities as a young person that forced us to push past them, such as competitive sports. It can feel difficult to walk away from a situation that doesn’t serve us if we struggle to stick to our guns. We might worry that we’ll take that person back or be enticed back into our job with the promise of increased income or a more flexible schedule. At that point, we will have unsettled an entire aspect of our lives “for no reason.”
3. You make negative conclusions about yourself, your life, and the future:
If you have spent the past seven years in a romantic relationship, hearing horror stories from your friends about their dating lives, you might worry about jumping into that pool. If your partner has said and done things that displayed a lack of appreciation for you, you might think that all partners will see and treat you the same way. “I am never going to find anyone,” or “I am always going to be alone,” or “I always find the wrong person to be in a relationship with.” When the stakes are high, it’s difficult to remember that you are an individual person at a particular time; the person who is right for you may also be recently single or wouldn’t have been your friend’s type.
Perhaps you compare yourself to others you know, who have had lifelong friendships, and feel like you’re not as good at making friends as they are. You worry about letting go of this friend, and the prospect of making a new friend seems daunting. Maybe you don’t trust your instincts about people after a string of life changes led to several short friendships in a row. “I don’t trust myself to hang out with the right person.” It is important to understand that as we grow and develop, our lives do, too. Friendships have to have common ground: hobbies, schedules, goals, priorities. In your early twenties, your plans and schedule will be different than your early thirties, forties, fifties, and so on.
Whatever your reasoning is for staying attached to people and/or relationships that are no longer serving you, it will be difficult to walk away before you are ready. Being ready doesn’t mean that it won’t hurt or feel like a challenge. It simply means that you have made your decision, and you are prepared to do what it takes to stick to it. The decision to exit a toxic relationship is an act of self-love that you are worthy of experiencing. Even though there will be ups and downs throughout the process, your quality of life will improve even as you take the first steps because you choose yourself and your happiness and provide yourself with well-deserved and much-needed care.
Three steps to help you walk away from toxic relationships:
1. Get real with yourself:
This can be the hardest thing to do when you truly care about the other person and want to be around him/her/them. But the truth is that nothing will change if you stay in denial. The first step in changing things is recognizing and noticing when a relationship has become unhealthy and toxic for you. You need to be aware of the red flags. You need to be honest with yourself about how often you feel hurt, confused, betrayed, misled, ignored, devalued, or any other negative emotion within this dynamic. Once you have identified that you frown about this relationship more often than you smile about it, you are well on your way to being able to walk away from it.
It is also important to be real about what would need to change in order for you to be happier, and whether the odds are in your favor that this change can and will happen. We cannot change others; we can only work on ourselves and have the strength to leave situations that do not suit us. If you have been making excuses for behaviors or hoping that “after x happens, y will happen,” it will be painful to come to terms with the fact that that is either a) not true, b) not enough, and/or c) too far in the future to wait for.
2. Learn to communicate your needs and set your boundaries unapologetically:
One of the ways we can talk ourselves into staying in something that isn’t working for us is by still having questions. “What if I…?” or “Maybe if I just…” When you know that you’ve been clear and communicative about your needs, your wants, your goals, and your feelings, then you can be certain whether there is any point in continuing to work on things. You can depart knowing that you did everything you could to improve the situation, and it wasn’t enough.
Being set and clear on your boundaries can also save you the grief of going back and forth with yourself about whether to leave, try again, approach the problem differently, etc. It is a firm line in the sand, a clear rule, that when crossed or broken, cannot be uncrossed or repaired. Having boundaries – even small ones – from the beginning of any relationship is a great way to investigate if the other person will respect your wishes and needs as time goes on. Being firm with yourself about your make-or-break boundaries eliminates questioning yourself when you realize it’s time to exit the relationship.
3. Take care of yourself:
Walking away from relationships that mean the world to you is difficult. You need to hold space for your feelings compassionately and kindly. The stages of grief apply to any loss in life, including the end of a relationship. These steps are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Telling yourself the relationship doesn’t need to end, being angry that it does, trying to negotiate with yourself about your needs, being sad that you know you can’t compromise, and then accepting what has to happen.
Let me warn you that you will experience a variety of emotions in no specific order. One moment you might feel anger, then the next moment, you might feel relief. You might feel guilty one moment, then find yourself feeling jealous.
Taking care of yourself also means being mindful of the way you are talking to yourself. Most often, we tend to beat ourselves up by saying, “I should have seen the signs,” or “I can’t believe how long I have let this continue.” Any self-criticism will only intensify the hardship of the struggle you are going through. Pay attention to the way you speak to yourself, and make sure you talk to yourself the way you talk to someone you love. Find affirmations specific to ending relationships, such as, “I will be kind to myself as I navigate the loss of my relationship,” or, “My feelings are valid, and it’s okay to feel the way I do.” You can also take care of yourself by going to therapy, and a therapist can help with these affirmations.
Knowing yourself and being honest with yourself is the best way to make sure you’re set up to leave what no longer serves your peace of mind, goals, happiness, and needs. If you are in a relationship, whether romantic, platonic, or professional, that doesn’t allow you to know and be yourself; that is a sure sign that you have work to do. The remarkable thing about that work is that it will show you exactly how to be content within yourself, confident in yourself, and brave, right when you’ll need it most. And being comfortable in your own company is the surest way to guard against loneliness, no matter how many or how few people surround you.
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Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life. Therapy is a safe space and focus time for you to evaluate your emotions and relationships
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.