Often people ask me to tell them if a relationship is over. Mostly they want me to read someone else’s behavior, to say how I think the other person may be feeling and whether or not she (or he) will ever change. So what would I say if you asked me these questions?
There may be lots of signs that the two of you aren’t yet finished with each other.
Perhaps, despite the fighting, she is still trying to find out how you feel. If there is distance between you, she may be sending texts or emails or calling you even after you’ve stopped responding.
Or perhaps you are the one doing these things. Maybe the two of you just can’t leave each other alone.
Another sign, not always positive, can be when you have split and one of you has stuff belonging to the other and won’t return it. The property can be clothing, house keys, music, furniture, or even money.
The two of you may also be linked by an obligation that outlasts your romantic relationship: he provided both of you with health insurance, car insurance, or a cell phone plan. Until your affairs are separate, you are still hitched.
On the other hand, if you live together but share little or nothing, the two of you may already be separate in fact if not formally. You don’t spend time together, you don’t have fun together, and you don’t have sex.
Even if you are still nominally a couple, the prognosis may be poor. The other person may seem happier in the company of friends or relatives than with you. You and he may be pursuing separate lives that seldom intersect. Your relationship, already dead, may be all set for formal termination.
To decide what you want, ask yourself a few basic questions.
- What am I getting out of this relationship? What are the benefits? Where is the joy?
- When I speak, does he listen and remember what I say? Does he care about my feelings?
- When something is wrong, does she tell me and seem eager to make things right between us?
- Do we enjoy each other’s company and have fun alone together regularly?
- If you voice preferences, in bed and out of it, does he notice and remember them?
- If you set limits—“Please give me space when I am upset,” for example—does she do as you ask, or does she traipse after you, nagging, leaving you no escape?
- Does there seem to be motivation on both sides to mend fences and move forward? Is he willing to meet you halfway?
- Will she change? Sometimes people swear that they are willing to do things differently and then never follow through.
No relationship can continue unless both parties want it to. Everyone has the right to opt out. None of us can control anyone but ourselves.
You have a choice. You can keep the connection, finding new ways to take care of yourself, since you cannot change the other person against his will, or you can call it quits and move on.
Your decision, whatever it is, must feel right to you. Do not disregard your intuition for the sake of friends or family—someone else’s feelings or needs as you perceive them.
Your perception may be wrong, and besides, your first job is always to take care of yourself.
People often find termination unpleasantly final, like a small death. Even on the phone we often say “See you later” or “Talk to you soon” rather than simply “goodbye.”
Sometimes people avoid explicitly ending things, hoping the other person will just go away if there is no response. Alternatively, a person’s failure to speak up may reflect uncertainty about what that person wants.
It may also stem from fear of getting an angry response. Many people are uncomfortable seeing even discreet displays of anger.
A failure to act when action is expected sometimes conveys hostility. It’s a passive, cowardly way of expressing anger without taking responsibility for it.
So how do you gracefully end a relationship gone bad? I suggest taking a “one down” position and making a statement about your feelings without judging the other person.
You might say, for example, “I’m really sorry, but I can’t live this way any longer. I just can’t bear it. Unless we can reach some agreement about [the issues], I am going to have to move on.”
Since you are the expert on your own feelings, the listener cannot argue with this statement. The listener also cannot feel insulted or attacked by your words.
Once you have ended a marriage or an informal love relationship, you must know what to expect. Termination is a process. It takes time.
You will feel sad, regretful. You may have fantasies in which the other person suddenly dazzles you by doing what she has failed to do previously. All will be well, you imagine hopefully, and it won’t be necessary to scrap the relationship after all.
You may feel angry. Why did he end the dialogue by running away when he could have stayed to work things out? Alternatively, you may feel tempted to bargain: if you will only do this, then I promise I will do that. . . .
You browbeat yourself: “Why does this always happen to me when I get interested in somebody?” You may obsess about unfinished business between the two of you.
In time, if you simply notice and acknowledge all the messy, mixed-up feelings, the problem will lose its ache and its urgency. You will accept the status quo and move on.
Where marriage, divorce, and property are part of the picture, separating out your affairs will call for negotiation. Anger and hurt are often present on both sides as you grapple with the reality that your dreams turned to dust.
The best settlement is always win-win. People are most willing to make concessions when the opposing side has exhibited a full understanding of their position. Win-win solutions acknowledge everyone’s needs and humanity and allow both parties to walk away with dignity.
By the time people split, they are often sick of each other’s bad habits. The gold plating has worn off to expose the base metal.
The pain of termination generally has less to do with losing the other person than with losing the dream of what you hoped the relationship would become. If you don’t take time to grieve this loss, you will be sorry.
The legacy of incompletely grieved losses is anger, bitterness, an unwillingness to extend trust, and sometimes the attitude that “no relationship will ever work out no matter what I do.”
This fatalistic assumption can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The past need not dictate the future. Your best insurance policy is a willingness to give yourself time to heal. Most people need at least a full year postdivorce before embarking on a serious new relationship.
If pain drives you into someone else’s arms sooner, be aware (and tell the other person) that you are not ready for a long-term commitment. While you are still grieving and trying to dodge loneliness, you are on the rebound.
Sometimes two people freshly liberated can console each other as they recover from their losses. In such cases it’s important for them to be honest with each other about their situations and to moderate their expectations from their new and as yet untested relationship.