I was listening the other day to an ex partner telling me about why he believed another partner of his recently broke up with him. He described them as essentially not seeing enough fun to balance out the work needed to be done in the relationship with him. It got me thinking about what really causes people to leave relationships – Was there a last straw? What are the straws leading up to it? Is it a simple reason? Or more complex? What makes us stay for as long as we do? What changes (or doesn’t) to make us walk?
I remember someone describing to me that ultimately, we stay in relationships that have more positives that outweigh the negatives. That sounds like such a simple answer, but for me, it’s always been so much more complex. For me, the positives and negatives are so entertwined and the relationship as a whole is hard to break into parts of pros and cons. And yet, I did just that when trying to decide to leave D. For at least six months, I had an ongoing pros and cons list and though I had so many more on the cons side than the pros, I still couldn’t walk out the door. I even started ranking them and giving them points based on how much they mattered to me. Still, the cons were heavier. Still, I stayed. My head could tell me the answer all day long, but what seemed to conquer my head was my heart and all the emotions tied up in those 11 years – including a lot of my own shit that had been wrapped up in my marriage. Like codependency and fears of abandonment, replacement, and being alone.
D and I had many straws leading up to a culmination of one moment that revealed months of lies and deceit. Apparently, that was my breaking point. Above all else, I needed to know that what I was being told was the truth my partner knew. And it wasn’t. It took me all of an hour to walk out that door. While packing, I bawled and screamed and bit myself and cussed and just didn’t even care. Nothing could hurt me in that moment more than the realization that I had been married to a liar and a thief.
But D and I are not the point or the question I’m trying to answer. That story has been repeated too many times already. What I’m curious about is, having watched myself and others break up, what is the thing that starts the process of ending and what actually sparks the official end? I often see the downward spiral – where it begins, how it escalates, and when it ends. The ending often takes months or years. People convince themselves they can talk through it, someone or both can change, and they wait…they talk until their face is blue…and they wait…and then…usually…nothing happens. The carcass of a relationship is still there – they are still going through the motions, still doing the day to day, but there is nothing left to build. Trust is gone. Hope dwindles. Eventually, at long last, the recognition of a death (of the relationship) dawns on one or both of them.
A good friend of mine recently asked me if I thought her relationship was doomed given recent escalation of discussions. I asked her if she wanted full honesty and she said yes. I told her, “I think he’s already gone, love.” I felt a horrible pain in my chest seeing her drawn face in response and slow nod. But I’ve see a change in her since. An acceptance. A choice to move on with herself in spite of what happens. I can’t answer what the conclusion will be, but I believe she will be better off either way by finding the strength inside her. That strength is where decisions generally come from – to keep holding on or to walk away. And to know you’ll be okay whatever the outcome.
The tipping point is my curiosity. What makes people look at all the past years of a relationship and up until the moment of walking away, keep thinking the balance is worth staying for? And when is it “enough” to leave? There is a book about this to help in making this decision. It’s called “Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay” and I read it when I was considering leaving D. What struck me about it was that even someone giving me justification for it being bad “enough” to leave was not enough to make me want to leave.
So it can’t be as simple as fun v not fun…right? There are so many things to stay for in a relationship that have nothing to do with fun, but might still be positive. Shared intimacy, shared memories, day to day tasks performed together, etc etc. And so many things that are positive that may also be kind of negative too. Relationships are hard. They push at our deepest darkest buttons and give us opportunities for growth and change. They also give us opportunities for hurt. That hurt can be transformed into positives – for you and the person catalyzing those transformations. Some people challenge me in ways that feel negative, but in the end they are positive for me.
Additionally, people are ever in flux. Sometimes, we aren’t sure if a person is going through something that is temporarily harming the relationship or if it’s a more permanent change. We might be able to live with something like depression temporarily, for instance, but not if it’s a more permanent state in our partner, especially when our partner makes no effort to change. We all have lines at which something is no longer working for us *and* at which it’s bad “enough” to end the commitment we may have made with another.
I also believe we all have different ideas and expectations around what “commitment” even looks like. Some people seem to believe that a longer relationship timespan inherently means they are “committed,” when others might believe that hard times in relationships are assumed and the commitment aspect is the feeling of wanting to stay and work things out as much as is feasible. To some, marriage is forever no matter what and to others marriage is a legal document that can just as easily be renegotiated with another document.
Last but not least, these lines of where and why we end a relationship seem to sometimes be grey and wispy until the moment that it isn’t. Until we hit a wall that is definably an end point, something we imagine can never be worked past. Suddenly, it might feel crystal clear after years of hmming and hawwing. They don’t seem to be predictable, but you know it when you’ve gotten there.
These are only some of the factors I can think of in making a decision to end a relationship or stay. That’s not including kids, costs of leaving, etc. Which to me indicates fun is the least of the considerations. Long-term relationships are not always fun. But they can be immensely rewarding, fulfilling, loving, intimate, connected, stable, and growth-inspiring. If fun is the only variable in your algorithm….are you doing it wrong?