6 questions to help you decide. When Should You Leave a Relationship?
- If sometimes disliking your partner is okay, when do you know that you’ve tipped over the line into true unhappiness?
- Finding solutions to difficult problems requires asking difficult questions.
- Staying when you want to go can mean becoming stuck or trapped.
In May 2021, Extra Gum released a commercial showing people waking up to an announcement that they could go outside: The pandemic was over. Set to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” the commercial depicts unkempt, exhausted people emerging from their gloomy homes—in one instance, rising like the undead out of casket made of pizza boxes—to run outside, take in the sunlight and fresh air, and enthusiastically make out with strangers in a park. What’s most striking, however, is that no one leaves the dreariness of their homes in pairs or families. Implicit in the fantasy is that they’re free not just from their homes, but from the people inside them.
While the pandemic might have made the feeling of being trapped in a relationship literal, ambivalence is a normal part of relationships. Relationship expert Terry Real sometimes refers to this as “normal matrimonial hatred,” which might sound a little intense. But when he introduces this term in front of an audience, he invariably receives knowing laughter.
If sometimes disliking your partner is okay, then when do you know that you’ve crossed the line to true unhappiness? In other words, when should you leave?
In my therapy practice, I frequently see people struggling with this question. You know you’re unhappy, but you try to stick it out because you’re comfortable. Or you realize you aren’t being treated well but can’t face the prospect of being alone or trying to start over again with someone new. Even more confusing is when a partnership is good, but you still have the nagging feeling that the relationship isn’t for you.
Finding solutions to difficult problems requires asking difficult questions. Here are some questions to set you on the path toward making up your mind.
1. Are our problems based on what we’re going through or who we are?
It’s easy to get stuck in the mindset that life will smooth out once a particular stressor is behind you, and your relationship will be better. We are all guilty of this magical thinking: If only I had a specific job, made more money, or moved away from my hometown, everything would be perfect. In relationships, we sometimes project this magical thinking onto our partners: If only this one thing changed, we’d have the relationship I want.
Sometimes this is true. Couples weather all sorts of tough times and come out the other side stronger and more deeply bonded. But you need to be honest with yourself: Is this an isolated incident or an entrenched pattern? And if it’s a pattern, is it one you can tolerate over time, or does it feel like it’s sucking the life out of you? If you’ve been waiting for years, or even decades, for your partner to behave differently, and there always seems to be a life experience that prevents this change from happening, you may be deluding yourself.
2. What would I say to a close friend in my situation?
It’s usually easy to guess because it’s probably what your close friends are saying to you now. You might have some friends who complain endlessly about their mate or operate according to unhelpful beliefs like, “All men are useless,” “Women are never satisfied,” or “No marriage is truly happy.” You can take what these friends say with a grain of salt. But hopefully, you also have friends who believe you deserve appreciation and can be appreciated and well-loved by your partner, and be happy in your relationship. When these friends express concern, it’s time to sit up and take notice.
3. How many things have I tried?
Even the best relationships experience growing pains. Combining lives with another person requires compromise, goodwill, and the ability to let minor grievances slide. Before ending a serious relationship, it makes sense to speak up, have difficult conversations, and be collaborative and open to change on your side, too. Maybe seek out a relationship counselor. If you love someone, don’t sit quietly and hope things will get better on their own.
4. What if things are good except when we have fights?
We can’t just consider who we are when our relationships are at their best. We need to take a hard look at how they are when we’re at our worst. Conflict is healthy and productive: Only people who have no boundaries are never angry. But conflict and anger need to be contained. If you or your partner can’t regulate your behavior when you’re upset, you’re not in a healthy relationship. Arguments should not be scorched-earth affairs. We are all responsible for everything we say and do, even when we’re upset. Even if the rest of the relationship feels okay, it might be time to leave if you dread disagreements because they always end with you feeling gutted.
5. Am I staying just put because I’ve already invested so much?
In finance, the Sunk Cost Fallacy is when you keep investing in an endeavor because of how much you’ve already put into it, even when the current costs far outweigh the benefits. In relationships, you might feel reluctant to leave an unsatisfying connection not because you think it can improve but because you feel sick about how much time you’ve already invested. If you regret not having left earlier or think, “If this [insert terrible incident] happens again, I will end it,” take notice. It might mean that you are throwing good money after bad. Staying in an unhappy situation because you’ve already stayed in it so long is a terrible reason for sticking it out even longer.
6. Do I like the person I need to be to stay in this relationship?
One of the best reasons to leave a relationship is that your partner doesn’t like the sides of you that you love the most. If you feel you have to dim your shine, hide your interests, or suppress your opinions, this isn’t the relationship for you. If you try to edit away who you truly are just to be the person your partner wants, you’ll slowly lose those parts of yourself. And losing the parts of yourself that you cherish most is a much greater loss than the end of a relationship.
Ending relationships is painful, and you get no guarantees about what comes next. But staying when you need to go means staying in a prison, or quarantine, of your own making.
Tonya Lester, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Brooklyn, NY