No matter how it happens, break-ups are usually hard. Even if there is an element of relief or celebration or freedom, seeing another person saddened and hurt is hard to take, especially when that person is our partner. In long-term relationships, we become good friends, even best friends. We grow, and we change each other every day. Our own attachment beliefs, needs, and traumas are triggered within our relationship patterns and can cause us to stay in a relationship that is no longer fully joyful, healthy, or happy for us. Sometimes we are ready to put in the work that relationships require, and we are committed to doing that; but today I’m talking about relationships whose time has passed and the end is overdue for one or both of us.
Here are some of the reasons folks stay in relationships too long, from personal and professional experience:
- It’s comfortable. You know your partner so well. Your fights are predictable. It’s what you want, some of the time. You have been together a long time.
- You feel guilty. Will they be okay if I end this? What will it mean for our relationship in the future? How will they respond to me? Will I be able to accept their pain?
- You can’t imagine being alone. This feeling can be incredibly overwhelming, and creates a barrier to us growing into who we want to be in or out of our relationship. It’s also very common, and can be a response to early attachment relationships (I will talk about this more in a moment).
- You want to be with the person, but not the way they are now. Maybe you miss the way they used to be and hope someday they will get back to that place, or you have high hopes for who they will be in the future (and sometimes we put a lot of effort into changing them to get to that point).
- Ending your relationship has consequences for the rest of your life, and it’s hard to face. You share friends (and maybe even family now), the regular places you go together, and the rituals and routines you have developed over time. Ending your relationship means you lose this as well, and we all know how hard it is to consider changing your lifestyle in that way.
- Financial challenges. When our life is intertwined with our partner’s, our finances usually are, too. Leaving a relationship will mean paying your rent or mortgage on your own and not having a partner to split utility bills with. You may go into debt trying to gain independence from your relationship. Some people are not able to do this—and so they stay because they are financially stuck.
Our attachment style can significantly impact how we operate within our relationship, and how we feel about ending it. This chart gives a brief description of attachment styles and resulting adult characteristics:
People who fall into the category of secure attachment often feel more comfortable identifying their needs and recognizing when their relationship is not working for them anymore, and they are feeling ready to move on. This doesn’t mean it’s easy by any means; it simply means they have a more direct connection to their needs and what this means for them. Folks who have a more anxious attachment style tend to worry more about what it would mean to be without their partner, and to be alone. When someone has a more avoidant attachment style, they may be more impulsive in choosing to end their relationship if they fear their partner is considering leaving them. This description of attachment styles is brief, but it begins to help us understand how our previous experiences impact us in the present.
If we are not “all in” when it comes to our relationship, we can’t fully support our partners. It’s okay to not want to be in it anymore, but it’s not okay for your partner to think you are fully engaged when you aren’t. It can take time for us to realize what is happening within our relationship and identify that it isn’t working for us anymore. Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for our partners is be honest about how we are feeling, and give them the opportunity to do what they need to do to take care of themselves.
What does it look like to end a long-term relationship that you have outgrown, for whatever reason? Here are some suggestions:
- Get clear on what you want. This can be really hard. I highly recommend some quiet time, getting grounded, and listening to your thoughts. If something more directive works for you, I love the book The Desire Map by Danielle Laporte.
- Meet your partner with tenderness and compassion, speak from your truth and integrity, and say what you mean in a clear way (it can be easy to backpedal and try to not say what we’re trying to say when we see the look on their face).
- Let your partner have whatever space they need to process and cope. Sometimes our guilt can push us to pursue them in their grieving process, to help them through as quickly as possible so we don’t have to see them suffer. But that isn’t our place, and they need time.
- Sit with the discomfort you feared all along and work through your own stuff. Just because we were ready to end our relationship doesn’t mean we have already processed it all. We need time to heal as well. The support of a therapist can be really helpful in supporting your goals and helping you to move through your grief of the relationship.
What are some strategies that have helped you or someone you know move through the end of a relationship? We would love to hear your comments below.
Elizabeth is a therapist at Porch Light Counseling in Asheville. She supports clients in working on their relationships as well as lovingly separating if needed.