How to know when to end a relationship

Anna Bonet
·7-min read
Photo credit: Unsplash
Photo credit: Unsplash

From Red Online

Is your relationship still worth fighting for? Is it okay to be comfortable, rather than passionately in love? Anna Bonet asks psychotherapist Allegra Vaselli the questions we contemplate when making decisions of the heart

Not every relationship comes to a dramatic end with a scandalous affair or total betrayal. Often, it’s more like a slow, gentle, fizzling out of love, or a feeling that ‘friendship’ has overtaken ‘relationship’. But in these scenarios, the decision to leave can be that much harder. In short, how do you know whether you should stay or go?

A new book from The School of Life, Stay Or Leave: A Guide To Whether To Remain In, Or End, A Relationship, delves into this indecision – and the pain that comes with it. Because, while no one wants to be hurt or wronged by their partner, the grey area in-between carries its own psychological damage.

‘Ambivalence is a very difficult place to be,’ explains Allegra Vaselli, psychotherapist at The School of Life. ‘When our partner does something unforgivable, everyone tells us we should leave, and we know ourselves that that’s what we should do.’ But when there are no big visible fractures in the relationship, other than your own creeping doubt, ‘It leads to a loss of your sense of self,’ says Vaselli.

Meanwhile – and perhaps making matters more complicated – the fact you’re questioning your relationship doesn’t always indicate it has run its course. ‘It’s healthy to continuously re-evaluate your relationship,’ says Vaselli. ‘Everything about a partnership is on a fluctuating continuum and we should always be asking ourselves whether it’s meeting our essential needs.’

Eventually though, that decision will need to be made.

‘If we’re staying, then we have to work on it,’ says Vaselli. ‘Or if we’re leaving, we’re capping our regrets, and moving on with our lives.’ While no one can make your mind up for you, here are Vaselli’s thoughts on some common questions we should ask ourselves at the (potential) end of an affair...

WHAT’S THE FIRST THING YOU SHOULD DO IF YOU’VE STARTED TO QUESTION YOUR RELATIONSHIP?

Look at what’s preventing you from leaving. If you’re already thinking about whether you should end a relationship, it’s easy to find reasons to do so. So it is also important to focus on why you’re there. Then, do some self-exploration. We all need to have an understanding of what is important to us in a relationship, and what can be negotiated and worked on. Does your partner meet your essential needs? If they don’t, there should be some open communication about this in a non-argumentative space.

WHAT QUALITIES SHOULD BE ESSENTIAL, AND WHICH ARE THE DEAL-BREAKERS?

It’s personal, but I would say broadly what is essential is that which gives us our self-worth. This could be defined differently; for one person that could be about becoming a parent, while for somebody else it could be respect of their career. I think nearly every relationship can be worked on, so most things aren’t deal-breakers – but a partner who won’t listen or compromise might well be one.

CAN PEOPLE CHANGE – AND IS IT OKAY TO ASK THEM TO?

People not only can change but actually continue to do so throughout life. So yes, we have to expect that our partners can and will change; the question is, should we expect our partners to adapt to meet our demands? When the changes we are asking of them are to do with being aware of and meeting our essential needs, then yes, we can and we should. If, after that, there’s still a distance to whatever other changes we were hoping to see in them, then the gap should be bridged with acceptance.

IS IT OKAY TO JUST BE COMFORTABLE, RATHER THAN MADLY IN LOVE?

Of course. ‘Madly in love’, almost by definition, comes and goes. I don’t know whether you can stay madly in love for the rest of your life. A relationship relies on solid ground, and that’s what being comfortable gives you.

WHAT IF YOUR PARTNER IS BEGINNING TO FEEL MORE LIKE A FRIEND?

When clients come to me with this question, and it is not unusual, I encourage them to explore why they would consider it a reason to leave. Is it the fear of becoming boring to each other; is it the implied stability that feels threatening; or is there a longing for something else – and where is this rooted? Finding a friend, someone we are comfortable with, is very precious and definitely worth saving. I would say it’s a sign to stay rather than leave.

DOES FANCYING SOMEONE ELSE ALWAYS IMPLY YOU SHOULD LEAVE?

It is a red flag, and something that should be carefully watched. Usually, what we’re doing is putting everything we don’t see in our partners on someone else. Often we are kind of making this up, because it’s romantic or exciting, and it can be difficult to pedal back. Also, sometimes we use it as a little bit of engine to get us out of a relationship that we know deep down is wrong. I think we use it as an excuse to leave sometimes.

HOW CAN YOU TELL IF YOU’RE MAKING A MISTAKE?

I think we can get a little bit philosophical here. Every choice means that we are abandoning other paths. We know for sure that along the way, we are going to regret those paths that we haven’t walked because they’re going to look somehow better. When things get hard, the path you abandoned will look easier. It might not have been, but that’s how we’re going to fantasise about it. So it’s a leap of faith. We should expect regrets to come, but we need to be able to let them go.

HOW MUCH DOES SEX MATTER?

It matters, but the perfect sexual partner won’t completely justify a relationship for ever. It’s more about a good sexual understanding, and that encompasses intimacy and companionship, too. So if the sex has lost its spark, there are other ways to make up for that. For example, with eye contact and touch that isn’t necessarily sexual, and by sharing an interest, or sharing moments together.

SHOULD YOU STAY TOGETHER FOR THE CHILDREN?

It depends. Children don’t need to see eternal love between parents, they need stability, attention and the least possible disruption. So ask yourselves: how best can we provide this? Is it by separating, and moving them from one house to another? Or is it by staying together, where perhaps our fighting might become unbearable? Whether or not you stay together for the children comes down to which gives them the most stable environment.

IF YOU’VE GROWN APART, CAN YOU FIND YOUR WAY BACK TO EACH OTHER?

I think this happens when we stop trying, we stop asking our partners to meet somewhere in the middle. So this is also something that can be worked upon. Start by focusing on what it is that’s left, and from there, try to recreate complicity by finding new interests together. People may grow apart, but there’s always a chance to grow closer together again, too.

DOES LEAVING MEAN YOU’VE FAILED?

We wrongly assume that couples who stay together have everything working. But people might stay even when the relationship is failing, and those who leave have decided this is not good enough for them. Every relationship that ‘fails’ is a step towards a better understanding of our needs. Ending a relationship is not a failure, it’s a learning curve.

WHAT IF YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT BEING ALONE?

Not being in a relationship doesn’t mean we’re alone. As a society, we have decided the only thing that fulfils us is another person, but it’s not true; we can find fulfilment and joy in hobbies, work and friendships. Also, if being alone means we had the courage to say, ‘This is not good enough for me,’ or ‘I need something completely different,’ then that is a show of strong self-worth. We should revisit the concept of being alone and see it not through the lens of weakness, but of strength.

This article originally appeared in the February issue of Red Magazine, out now.

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