Once again, my inbox has been filling up with variations of the following story:
Dear Captain Awkward, my relationship hit a MAJOR rough patch, and even though [I][[We]My Partner] have tried very hard to fix what was wrong, it’s still not fixed, and I am still not happy. How do I know when it’s time to pull the plug? Is it even fair to leave now, after everyone has worked so hard to fix it by [working on themselves][going to therapy/rehab]? Am I allowed to leave even if I suspect/fear the other person doesn’t really have anyone else they could count on? What if I never feel this way about anybody again? What if I never feel “in love with” my person ever again? Is it too late?
If this describes where you’re at, I want to give you a small project, a variation of the assignment for the person who fears they married the wrong person or the one for when both halves of a couple wrote in.
- See if you can buy yourself some time away from your partner & other obligations to be alone with your thoughts. Can you visit a supportive, warm, encouraging friend or family member or do a little solo getaway for a few days?
- Grab a notebook and an incognito browser window and start working through the logistics of dividing up households, money, and co-parenting, stuff. Convert “Should I stay or should I go” to “If I go, how should I do that?” For example:
- Are there safety concerns? I’m going to write the rest of this list as if there are not, but if there are, now is the time to get some expert advice and make a safety plan.
- Where would you want to live and work? Imagine your ideal living space, where you’ve picked out everything and it’s all set up just for you.
- If you have kids, what kind of co-parenting & custody arrangement would you want?
- If you don’t have children, and you are a person who can get pregnant, do you a way to control your pregnancy risks? If you have the ability to get your partner pregnant, can you take extra precautions against accidental pregnancy?
- What should happen to the money and stuff? Consider: What’s best for you? What’s truly fair? What would set up everybody in the best possible financial shape for the future? What could everybody live with, short-term?
- What resources do you have – family, friends, work, financial, educational, health – that you could call upon for help if you really needed them?
- Are there people you haven’t talked to in a while who would be happy to hear from you, just because? Or that you’d be happy to talk to, just because? Make that list, too.
- Are there hobbies, interests, and social spaces that you really miss? What would it take to reconnect with them again, even in small ways?
- If you’ve been in more of a caretaker role in relation to your partner, what care of yourself have you been postponing or neglecting? Do you need to go to the dentist, get a haircut, replace that worn or broken item?
- If you’re legally married or partnered, what are your legal options like where you live? Remember, consulting a divorce lawyer does not necessarily mean hiring a lawyer or following through with legal separation. Right now, it just means gaining a better understanding of your options so that you can make informed choices.
- Overall, what does the best possible breakup look like, where everybody is left in the best possible position to thrive?
- What are some possible worst case scenarios? How likely are those? If one of them happens, what would you do about it?
- Apply the Sheelzebub Principle: If things stayed exactly as they are now and were unlikely to change, how much longer would you want to stay? Another year? 5 years? Ten?
- Imagine that you’ve already broken up and have started doing the hard stuff. What does your life look like in a year? Five years? 10?
- Now shrink back to the next 3-6 months. Are there any big decisions or purchases that would be very different if there was a pretty good chance you won’t stay together? Do you need to redirect some money/energy/effort now while you’re still working things out in your own mind?
- Free space for jotting down feelings and ideas that come to you while you’re working through the questions. Especially watch for attempts to prioritize your partner and make your future housing/finance/care decisions subject to theirs. You don’t have to pre-solve all of someone’s problems before you’re allowed to leave them! Make a note of them when they arise and keep going with your own planning.
I know that digging into these details before you’ve even decided to end things seems like skipping a lot of steps, but that’s entirely on purpose. You may use this information to proceed with breaking up, or you may never use any of it. That is also on purpose! I’m not always good with identifying and applying feelings myself, which is why I’m suggesting an end run around them, on purpose. Don’t try to solve what you feel. Try to imagine what you would do if the thing you fear happens, and then check in with feelings. Do any of these action items and daydreams of the future make you feel good things? Excitement? Relief? Flickers here and there inside all of the fear, grief, and anger?
When you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, and when the relationship or a partner has been in some sort of crisis for a long time, framing “how you are doing” in terms of “How The Relationship is doing” becomes an ingrained habit. “If we can just hold out until [graduation][rehab][The Holidays][That big trip we already bought tickets for], then things will be okay.” “If partner would just _______, then things would be okay.” “If I could just make myself _____, then things would be okay.” “It’s not a good time, I’ll worry about that once [Partner][The Relationship] is okay.”
After a while, it can start to seem like everything good in your life is out there somewhere past “Fix The Relationship,” and you can’t have any of it until you beat that level. And you can’t beat that level. So you can’t have the other good things. Unless, this time you beat that level. Except, you can’t. But maybe this time you will? If left unchecked, the inertia just spreads and spreads to almost every aspect of life.
But just for this weekend away, for this one little moment, I want to break you out of that loop. If the relationship doesn’t ever get fixed, if it’s not fixable, how will you get what you need and want from your life? Can you, even briefly, imagine a world where you are safe, loved, fed, taking care of yourself and those dear to you and being taken care of by your community, working on your dreams and aspirations, and enjoying your life again, that does not depend on solving the equation of this one person? What else could you do with all the time you spend trying to fix everything?
Ultimately, only you can decide when and whether it’s time to leave a relationship. If you decide to go, I want you to leave with a plan for how you’ll take care of yourself. If you decide to stay and keep working on things, I want you to relax a little bit because you already know that if the thing you fear happens, you will ultimately be okay. Either way, maybe you can start reconnecting with some of the people and things you love now, and start taking better care of yourself now, and maybe it will be easier to be generous and hopeful inside your relationship knowing that you don’t *have to* stay together forever if it’s truly not working. I’m sending you all ❤ and hope for safe landings.