Earlier this year, I ended a relationship I?d been in for about two years. If I?m totally honest, I knew before we even started dating that we weren?t good for each other ? or rather, that he wasn?t good for me. But I let his words persuade me otherwise, and two years later, I had to pick up the pieces.
I could have saved myself a lot of heartache by ending things sooner, but no matter how many times I told myself I would, I never did. In the months since the breakup, I?ve done a lot of reflecting on these kinds of unhealthy relationships. I?ve come to a few conclusions about why we stay and how we can get out of them.
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I?ve come to the conclusion that there are four big reasons we stay in unhealthy relationships. We may stay for just one of these reasons or for all four. Or we may stay for a combination of them. The combination and the reasons might even change over time.
1. Hope: We stay because we hope our partner will change. Whether it?s seeing potential that we hope they?ll live up to, listening to promises of changed behavior, or simply hoping that our love will be enough to make them be the person we want them to be, it all comes back to hoping for change. This hope allows us to see things we want to see, even if they aren?t really there.
2. Attachment/Investment: We pour all our hopes and dreams into each relationship we?re in. This doesn?t happen instantly. That?s why it?s easier to leave in the first few weeks. But as months and then years pass, we begin to feel we?ve invested too much in this relationship to walk away. We?re attached to the person, even if they?re no longer (or never were) what we really want. We?ve invested our love, our time, our desires into this relationship ? and to walk away now would be to waste all of it. So we stay because we?re certain if we just invest a little more love, a little more time, a few more desires, we can finally make this relationship what we always wanted.
3. Fear: Fear can take a couple of forms in these relationships. One is, obviously, fear of your partner. If the relationship is abusive, you may stay simply because you?re afraid of what your partner will do if you try to leave. Another form fear can take is fear of the unknown. The relationship may be miserable and uncomfortable, but at least it?s familiar. You know what to expect. Leaving the relationship means starting over and that can be very scary.
4. Exhaustion/Giving Up: Being in an unhealthy relationship is exhausting. Pretending to be happy and ignoring the problems takes a massive amount of mental and emotional effort. It wears you down quickly. Even when you try to leave, your partner sucks you back in with false promises and declarations of love. You reach a point where trying to leave becomes just as exhausting as staying so you simply give up. You accept what seems to be your fate.
I?ve listed these reasons in the order that I believe they tend to happen for most of us. The real question is: what do you do once you realize you truly want out of the relationship?
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How do you leave an unhealthy relationship?
So you?ve realized your relationship is unhealthy. Or maybe you haven?t, but you want to leave anyway. How do you do that? Is it as simple as saying ?I want to break up?? Not really. Unhealthy relationships come with a tangle of emotions and complications that often need to be sorted out before we can truly be ready to leave.
So what do we do? Though the end of my relationship earlier this year seemed abrupt to others, it actually was a long time coming in my own mind. These are the things I did to prepare myself to leave:
1. Listen to yourself: Your partner is going to tell you what you want to hear. Unhealthy relationships generally aren?t built on honesty. If he knows you want to leave, he?s going to say whatever he knows (or thinks) will get you to stay. But he?s not the only one you should ignore. Friends and family will have the best of intentions, but they aren?t inside your relationship. You have to tune out everyone around you, from your partner to your best friend to the corner store clerk, and listen to yourself. What do you think? What do you want? What do you need? That?s what matters, not the external chatter.
2. Figure out your reason for staying: Which of the four reasons above is your reason for staying? Is it just one or all four? A combo of two or three? Maybe there are even other reasons that aren?t in that list. Figure out the reason(s) you stay. This is important because understanding this reason will help you when your resolve is weakening and you think you should give the relationship another shot.
3. Take a step back from the relationship: When we try to fix the relationship, we dive back in headfirst. We get right in there and reinvest ourselves even more. When you want to leave, you need to take a step back. Taking a step back can be as simple as not being the one who reaches out first all the time. Or it can be bigger, like taking a weekend away or even a vacation without your partner and not taking their calls or responding to texts. Whatever you do, take a step back. Give yourself a little breathing room and see how it feels. You might find the distance makes you feel better, confirming your decision to leave.
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4. Reflect on the whole relationship, both good and bad: Take some time to reflect on your relationship. Think back to how it felt in the early days, when things were probably much more good than bad. Compare those early days to now. How does the difference feel? Think about all the bad times you?ve had with your partner. Think about the good times. Are there more bad times than good? More good than bad? A surprisingly good balance of both? If there?s more bad than good, this reflection will likely cement your decision to end things. But if there?s more good than bad, or things seem to equal out, you might need a little more time to consider. Don?t feel bad either way. This is your decision to be made when the time is right.
5. Make your decision: If you?ve done each of the previous things and really put in the effort, you should be ready to decide. If the relationship is truly unhealthy, and you?ve reflected after taking a step back and are ignoring input from others, you should be feeling confident about walking away. But these decisions aren?t easy, so if it takes you a while, that?s okay. Be honest with yourself. You might even find that self-honesty looks like admitting that you know you should leave but you don?t want to yet.
6. Use meditation and self-care to create inner stability: It?s hard to leave a relationship when you?re feeling off-kilter and unstable internally. When your thoughts ping-pong around your brain and your emotions are like a roller coaster, you?ll not only second-guess your decision but also the information you used to make your decision. You?ll question whether what you think is happening is really happening. Use meditation and self-care practices to give yourself inner stability. By taking care of yourself during this fragile time of upheaval and confusion, you?ll give yourself a base on which to stand confident in your decision.
7. Start planning your solo future: Over the course of your relationship, you?ve built a life with this person, as well as a future. You probably have tons of future dreams that involve this partner. It?s time to start planning for a solo future. Of course, I?m not suggesting that you?ll be alone forever. What I am saying is that you should start making plans that don?t include your current partner. Start planning that vacation just for you. Add skydiving to your bucket list as something you do with a good friend. Start looking at your credit and income and look for a house you can buy on your own. Big or small, start building that future for yourself so that when you leave, you already have plenty to look forward to.
8. Don?t force yourself to leave before you?re ready: Even if you know you should leave, and that you?re going to leave, you might not be ready. Whether it?s being emotionally unready or you feel unready because you don?t have anywhere to live once you leave, it?s okay to not be ready. And if you?re not, you shouldn?t force yourself to leave. Take the time to prepare yourself in whatever ways you need to before you leave. You might need to meet with a therapist to work on the emotional aspect, or save up money and find an apartment to rent, take the time to do the work and be fully prepared. By waiting until you?re truly ready to leave, you?ll feel better about leaving and be less likely to look back and wonder if you made the right decision.
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It?s never easy
Even if you follow that entire list, leaving any relationship is not easy. Leaving unhealthy relationships might be even harder because of the often toxic emotions and attachments involved. Go easy on yourself and don?t berate yourself if you don?t leave as soon as you think you should.
It?s been eight months since I ended my relationship. In the beginning, I felt a combination of heartache and relief. As the months have passed, I?ve moved beyond heartache. I?ve rediscovered the things that make me happy, without a partner, and dived back into friendships that had grown a bit distant during the relationship.
I?m happier than I?ve ever been, and I?ve never looked back on my decision to leave with regret or doubt. I might have stayed far longer than I should have, but if I?d left sooner, I might have wondered if it was the right decision.
The best thing you can do is listen to your own instincts. Deep down, you know what you need to do. And you?ll do it when the time is right.