Many relationships have a natural life. A contract of employment, for example, may have a fixed term. Most teacher / student relationships last only for the duration of the course or schooling. Work based friendships often end when one person moves on to a new job. Parents’ friendships with the parents of their children often fade away as the children go their separate ways, or when they no longer need to be collected and delivered. Friendships formed around common interests may be held together only as long as the common interest continues.
For those that don’t have a natural end, how do we know when the end is right? For some people, these natural endings are just part of the way it is. With their mind on what is to come, they shed the old as easily as washing the toast crumbs from their teeth. For some people, when things go wrong, the obvious solution is to cut and run, to start again with someone new.
Others struggle to let relationships, any relationships, go.
The issue is vastly complicated when the relationship in question is one that we have expected will last, if not a lifetime, then at least years rather than weeks or months. When two people have publicly committed themselves to each other, either through a formal ceremony of marriage, or through their actions, moving in or buying a house together, having a child, or even creating a business or starting a company together, the cost of letting go becomes much higher for both.
Among those of us who are old enough to have grandchildren, and who remember older, different times, there can be bemoaning of the decline in marriages, and the increase in separation and divorces. There may be an undercurrent of judgement for those who are seen to be running at the first sign of trouble. Perhaps there is also a little jealousy of those who have grown up with a world that gives them more choices. If there is nowhere to go, you have to make the best of where you are. If you have lots of choices, there’s no longer any reason to stay in a situation which is unpalatable.
At times, there may also be contempt for those who choose to stay and try to make a relationship work. We see this, for example, when a celebrity has been unfaithful and their spouse or partner chooses not to end the relationship. When a relationship is abusive in any way, again, it appears to many on the outside, that this should be an obvious indicator that the relationship should end. However, the complexities of the bonds between people defy such simple analysis.
Paradoxically, increased choice does not seem to make our lives easier, it makes life far more complicated.
Among the questions that come up for those who ask themselves whether their relationship has run its course are:
• How do I know for sure which decision is right?
• How do I know it won’t be okay (if I stay, or if I go)?
• What if this is just a bad patch?
• Is it okay to expect more for myself (or from them)?
People can experience much hurt and pain in a relationship, and can inflict it on each other, even when there is no abuse. As we look to the other to meet our needs, and are let down, it’s easy to blame our partners for our disappointment. It’s easy to point the finger and to say, if you weren’t here, or if you were different, I would be happy.
So how do we know when is the right time for a relationship to end? Of course, there is no right or easy answer to this question, and it is not one that anyone can answer for anyone else. On the continuum whose poles stretch from hold on forever, to always let go, the distance is vast. Some of the questions that might help to clarify include:
• What is it that I want or need from this relationship?
• Does this relationship have the capacity not only to fulfil my needs in the short term, but in the long term?
• Do I expect this relationship (or the other person) to meet all my needs? Are there other ways in which my needs can be met? Am I expecting my partner to meet needs that I am able (if not willing) to meet in other ways?
• What are the consequences of continuing and not continuing?
• What are my beliefs about my partner’s willingness and ability to provide for my needs?
• Which feels better, to stay or to go?
Whatever you choose, it’s important to clear the air with the other person as far as possible. If the underlying problems that gave rise to the difficulties between you are not addressed in some form, they have a sneaky habit of turning up again with the next relationship. So whether you stay or go, take some time to understand what happened between you. What went well, and what went wrong. What can you learn from your experience?