When should you leave a relationship?

4 November 2016

There’s no formula for knowing when you should leave a relationship – it can be really stressful and confusing trying to make a decision.

You may think things haven’t been right for a while but still feel undecided about whether you could work through your issues.

While you might clearly remember how good things used to be you may now be losing faith that you can ever get back to that place.

It’s often hard to know whether you’re going through a bad patch, or if it’s something more serious. You might feel that letting your relationship end would mean you’re a failure. And you could also be thinking about any children involved – whether separating would mean letting them down.

Taking a step back

The best way to start unpicking all of this is by trying to see things more objectively. It’s hard to make decisions around your relationship when you’re already feeling upset or confused. Without taking a step back you could find yourself doing something you later regret because you didn’t know which way to turn – or, equally, feel paralysed and unable to make a decision because of all the conflicting emotions you’re experiencing.

It can be very useful to ask yourself a few simple questions about how you got here and what might happen next. For instance: is this a problem that’s developed more recently or has it been going on for a long time? Is it something you’ve tried to fix before, or is it a new problem?

And if you were to stay together, would you be doing so because you want to make the relationship work, or because you’re scared of being alone? Or likewise, if you were to break up, would you be doing so because you genuinely feel you’ve run out of other options, or simply because you’re tired of trying?

After asking yourself these questions, try writing down the answers. Putting words to your feelings can be a great way of understanding them better – and figuring out what you need to address if you do want to make things work.

You could also write a list of all the ways in which the relationship feels different from how it used to be: this can help you understand what the problem actually is, which in turn may help you understand what has caused it.

Relationships naturally go through lots of changes and transitions such as moving in together, getting married, having a baby, moving house, taking on a new job or losing a job. These changes can create challenges. Sometimes the changes are less momentous but equally difficult. We can all be guilty of putting less energy into our relationships, of nurturing them less, and this can take its toll. Familiarity can, in these circumstances, leave space for less positive behaviours and thoughts to creep in.

Doing it for you

Whatever you do decide, remember that the decision about whether or not to continue with your relationship is one you and your partner should make. You shouldn’t worry about what other people think, or what you think you’re supposed to do.

Often, couples decide to ‘stay together for the kids’, but research shows this isn’t a good reason to continue with a relationship that’s not working. It can be truly harmful to the children who are much better at picking up on tensions than we might think. Look at it this way: your relationship is going to be one of the key models by which they conduct the relationships in their own lives. Seeing that their parents were able to manage their differences and co-operate, even if it didn’t mean staying together, can be so much better for both their well-being and development than regularly seeing their parents sticking with their relationship, but being cold, angry and resentful with each other.

Likewise, you may be feeling a lot of pressure to stay together because of family or religious pressure. While this is understandable, it’s also important to remember that this decision is about yours and your partner’s happiness – and isn’t for the benefit of anyone else. You’re the ones who’ll be most directly affected. Doing things because you don’t want to let down other people rarely works out in the long run, and can cause a lot of resentment over time.

And for a lot of people, there’s also a very real worry about feeling like a failure if they don’t stick with their relationship. When you start a relationship, you might have a lot of dreams for where it could go, and these tend to get bigger as time goes by. Letting these go is always sad. However, if, on balance, the relationship has reached a point where it can’t work – then sometimes this pain and sadness is necessary so you can move on and be happy again.

Talking it through

It’s always worth trying to work through any issues in your relationship before making any decisions.

The most obvious place to start is by talking to each other. Having difficult conversations about your relationship can be painful and tense, but communicating openly will be necessary if you’re going to find a way to resolve your differences.

Talking to people outside of the relationship can also be a really useful way of getting a neutral perspective on things. Speak to friends and family – people you can trust and who you know will listen to you. They may want to reassure and agree with you – and you may need to be wary of this – but they might also be able to help you develop a more objective view of what’s going on, which can be really useful when you’re trying to make big decisions.

And talking to a relationship counsellor is a very useful way of getting to the bottom of relationship issues. Your counsellor won’t take sides or tell you what to do: they’ll simply help you to get a hold on what’s happening and think about options. Sometimes people don’t come to Relate because they think we’ll try to simply convince them to stay together, but that’s not the case. We’ll simply help you to decide what’s best for you – even if this does mean you and your partner going separate ways.

If you’d like to talk things through with one of our counsellors why not give our friendly appointments team a call on 01234 356350.


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