When to end a relationship?

Do these 10 Things to Do Before You Breakup.

 

Great relationships require hard work, useful information, and a lot of discipline. If you are wondering how to know when to end a relationship, or whether you should end your relationship, these 10 steps are for you.

1. If in doubt, stay. 
If you question whether you should break-up, chances are you are in the perfect position to heal old wounds and develop new skills to feel better about yourself, your relationship and your life. Ambivalence is a sign that you have more to learn. 

If you are 100% certain it’s time to end the relationship, move to number two. If you have doubt, you need to find the answer to this question: 

What do I need to know to feel confident about staying or about leaving? 

Most people leave a relationship before learning what they need to learn to be more successful in future relationships. 

2. Identify the reason(s) you want to leave (be specific)
Discernment Counseling is a clarification process (read more here) designed to help couples know when to end a relationship and when to keep trying. Usually, one partner is leaning out (wants to end things) and the other is leaning in (wants to work on things).

The three forks in the road are:

  1. End the relationship
  2. Commit to 6 months of intensive relationship work – going all in
  3. Choose to keep things the way they are (which can be a powerful recognition that you are indeed in this unhappy place by choice).

The discernment model describes “hard” and “soft” reasons to break up. Hard reasons to end a relationship include: ongoing affairs, physical abuse, addiction, and emotional cruelty. “Soft” reasons to end a relationship are things like, growing apart, lack of communication, and falling out of love. 

To move in any direction with certainty about your relationship, be sure you can identify what you are feeling and name the source of your pain as specifically as possible. “Hard reasons” do not require the same level of reflection or discernment as “soft reasons.” Knowing when to end a relationship is much easier with hard reasons than it is with soft reasons, but it still isn’t “easy!”


3. Close Exits.
Agree to close all exits. An exit is anything that takes you out of your relationship, despite the fact you haven’t left. These are things like drinking, excessive food intake, unhealthy relationships or friendships, and family relationships that encourage you to leave (for non-“hard” reasons). It is impossible to know when to end a relationship if you have a constant and intense distraction. You must cut all contact with any outside party when there is an emotional distraction, affair, or attraction that is negatively impacting your relationship. You can not fan the flames of a new love interest and expect to have the energy, interest, and motivation to re-ignite a fire with your existing one. I heard it described once that comparing a new love interest to your existing love interest is like comparing the joyful freedom of horseback ride in wide open, unexplored terrain to that of cleaning out the barn and grooming and feeding the horse. 


4. More Responsibility, Less Blame
Move your focus away from your questions about if or when to end your relationship. Suspend your thoughts about whether she offers you what you want and need. Instead, focus entirely on yourself with specific emphasis on what you want in your life, what your dreams and hopes are, and where you want your life to lead. This may require extensive self-examination through journaling, conversations with friends, spiritual leaders or associates, counseling, and meditation. 

5. Reality Check 
Once you can see the vision you hold for your own life, begin to explore whether you can make that vision a reality in the context of this relationship. Share your vision for your life, for your relationship, with your partner and have her do the same. Take an honest look at whether you can achieve those goals together and whether you are willing to work on a shared purpose that works for both of you.

6. Identify and Name the Obstacles 
If you feel you cannot reach your life dreams and goals in the context of this relationship, then turn your focus to the real obstacles. Name the actual barriers that are preventing you from reaching your dreams. For example, if a part of your life dream is to be an aquamarine scientist that requires you to live near an ocean, and your partner wants to stay in her landlocked hometown near her family, this may be an obstacle to your life dream. Be confident that it is the relationship which prevents you from realizing your vision for your life, and not something else. Are you limiting yourself in some way? 

7. Ask yourself the right questions. 
As you identify the obstacles to living the life you desire, experiencing the relationship you want, or achieving any goal, be sure you don’t stop at the obstacle. For every obstacle, ask yourself a “How..” question. If in the example about the aquamarine scientist, you need to be near an ocean and your partner is settled in her land-locked hometown, the question would be: “How can I pursue my dream of being an aquamarine scientist without my wife having to move away from her hometown.” When we focus on obstacles, we lose the creativity and openness necessary to identify solutions.


7. Notice What’s Already Great
It’s no secret that gratitude is a natural healer for most things. When you experience discomfort in a relationship it is natural to want relief. Unfortunately, for everything that feels bad in a relationship, we need five things to feel good to maintain a stable (not even happy) relationship. For a happy relationship, we need to find 20 things good for every one thing that feels bad. If you feel bad, chances are, there is significantly more that works than you realize because of the 20:1 ratio!

When something feels bad, we are more inclined to find evidence to validate the bad feeling, than we are to look for opposing evidence that much more is actually great. You wouldn’t be in this relationship if there isn’t some good somewhere. Chances are if you have 5 complaints about your relationship, you likely have 20 positives that you have stopped noticing.

8. Check your Stories
Most people end relationships because of beliefs they develop over time. “I’m not a priority,” “She doesn’t love me,” “I’m not good enough,” “Nothing I do is ever enough,” “She just wants to control me,” “She’s never happy with me,” “I don’t make her happy,” etc… Identify the stories you relate to. Once you have them, ask yourself this, “What do I feel in this relationship that I also felt as a child?” If you can relate to feeling in ways that are familiar to how you felt as a child, then your “imago” is alive and kicking and it is important to identify how much of your feelings are related to how you’ve always felt, and how much of your feelings are related to this specific relationship. Here is a quick imago quiz to familiarize you with this concept. (It’s relationship changing stuff, people!) 

9. Seek Understanding, Not Proof
Most couples who are considering a breakup do not understand one another. Many people lack the skills to deeply understand the behaviors, comments, and actions of others; and worse yet, are the false understandings which are worse than a lack of understanding.

  • It is easier to judge than it is to understand, seek understanding anyway. 
  • It is easier to criticize than it is to remain curious, be curious anyway.
  • It is easier to assume than it is to gather facts, gather facts anyway.


Most people who exit a relationship have a generic story, a surface understanding of their pain, and an interpretation of their relationship that has been thought for so long that they begin to believe it is true. Do not end your relationship because of stories, assumptions, false interpretations and lack of understanding. Get facts, be curious, lose judgment, and seek understanding.

10. Email me or Schedule with Me (the phone is not my favorite) 
Reach out to me, or another couple’s therapist who has at least one additional credential in couples counseling (Imago, Gottman, EFT, Discernment, etc). Put your relationship in a safe container and commit to doing the work needed to determine whether to work it out or break up. If you are not comfortable going to couple’s counseling with your partner (or she is not willing to go with you), consider going alone with the goal of organizing your thoughts and feelings. Though together is better, when one partner is in therapy, both partners can benefit.
 

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ABOUT Michele O’Mara, LCSW, Ph.D.

Relationships are my thing. Some would say, my obsession. While I only scored an 83.75% on my own "How Lesbian Are You" test,  don't let that fool you. Since returning to school in the '90s for my MSW, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: help lesbian couples grow love. 

I am that person who has built her life around one thing: lesbian relationships and women loving women. For fun, I do things like create online quizzes at asklesbians.com, to learn more about real lesbians. Or I write books. like, "Just Ask: 1,000 Questions to Grow Your Relationship," to give couples an easy way to communicate. (www.1000question.app) And, now that our boys are young men, my love, and my wife, Kristen, and I are growing lesbian love through Lesbian Couples Retreats and The Lesbian Roadshow throughout the U.S. in awesome destinations where our motto is, "love out loud" with Adventures in Love.  You can learn more about those at lesbiancouples.co.

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