Break-ups are almost invariably difficult,
but that isn’t to say there aren’t different degrees of complexity at stake in different
constellations. Nor does it preclude the existence of a cataclysmically painful but too-little
known type whom we can call the hardest person in the world to break up with.
A relationship with them begins like this: you’re very drawn to them. Perhaps they
very much attract you physically and their personality is compelling as well. You admire
them and, in areas, feel a lot of sympathy for them too; there’s probably something
in their past which really interests and touches you. You have no desire to break up, and in
fact, you’d love this to last till the end. For their part, they seem to be keen on you.
That’s what they’ve said on a number of occasions. They show no interest in leaving
you. They want this to be for the long-term, perhaps forever.
And yet there is a problem, a problem so grave and yet so hidden, so damaging and yet so
hard to grasp, that you can only bear slowly to face up to it. You start to realise that
the partner whom you love and who says they love you is having a grievously detrimental
effect on your mental or physical well-being. What wrong might the partner be perpetrating?
It is a spectrum. At one end, they might be hitting you. But the spectrum is long and
it contains all sorts of far more insidious ways in which, without ever raising a hand,
let alone a finger, one human can badly damage another. They might be having affairs, or
spending too much money. They might be addicted to something. Or, and this is properly hard
to get a grip on, they may be constantly ‘absent‘. They show no reliable warmth towards you,
they never initiate any touch, they may never hug. They are present but not really there.
Probably, as soon as these problems first arose, you started to complain. But you did
so softly, or sarcastically or bitterly. Not head on. After all, you love them and you’re
a good boy or girl. It can take a long time, years, decades, before you finally dare to
find your voice and come to a place of being able to raise an adult objection. What then
happens when you at last ask these types to face up to the harm you feel they are doing
to you? There are two main responses, both of them are appallingly hard to master, the
second is the very hardest. (i) They Confess it
Fed up at last, you tell them that you’ve had enough of the violence, affairs, addiction,
financial spend, distance, lack of intimacy, lack of sex… You raise an ultimatum. If
they don’t finally raise their game, you’re going to be leaving (even though, of course,
it’s the last thing you really want; you love them!). You may be shaking and flushed
after you have spoken. You’re feeling you might be crazy (surely it’s crazy to threaten
to leave someone you love who says they love you!). You’d expected all sorts of dark
responses on their part – but something that is on the surface rather lovely now happens.
They admit it! They confess! They say, my goodness you’re right, I hadn’t really
fully realised until now, until you made me finally open my eyes to how I’ve harmed
you. Baby, I hear you! Baby, I’m so sorry! The person promises that they will now change.
They just need a bit of time, they just need your understanding. They suggest getting themselves
a therapist, once a month or so. And then they’ll get on top of their issues. Their
ready candour is deeply moving – and suggests they really have a handle on their psyches.
You are, in any case, desperate to believe them, they have a very willing audience indeed.
The problem is that, despite their promises, the person doesn’t change at all. They make
a short term adjustment, strong enough to ensure you won’t leave them on the time-scale
you were threatening, but not profound enough to correct the problem – and allow you your
freedom. And in the gap between their promise to change and your realisation that they haven’t
got the ability (or perhaps intention) to do so, children may have been born (they wanted
kids to keep you around; you wanted them as a token of the happy future that was being
promised). Commitments pile up, and there are fewer options left in the world beyond.
You might not be so young any more. (ii) They Deny it
However hideous all the above sounds, there is an even worse kind of relationship to leave
than that. This is one with the same dynamics but with one extra twist at the end. When
you finally confront them with the problem, they don’t confess: they deny it! They tell
you you’re dreaming: you’re imagining it, not remotely, the problem lies with you,
they say. At the same time, they get very incensed and offended at the suggestion you’re
making: you’re so cynical about me, don’t you trust me?! How rude you are about me!
Why don’t you have more faith in me and in us? And they push back: you’re just as
neurotic as you say I am. The problem is with you and not me… This is mine-field territory.
Relationships and their interactions are generally not filmed. So it’s very hard for you to
back up your claims or even be sure of your verdicts, when they are relentlessly challenged:
is the loved one spending too much money; or am I just nagging? Are they actually flirting;
or am I just jealous? Are they failing to initiate sex; or am I just insecure? The partner
whom you love and really don’t want to leave and who says they love you adds to the difficulty
you face by enthusiastically telling you, with authority, that you really are a bit
crazy, that you are seeing things, that you are too demanding, that there’s something
wrong with you… Probably, you’re an open minded, nice, intelligent person – and open-minded,
nice, intelligent people tend to give others the benefit of the doubt. After all, such
types know they aren’t perfect, they’re aware of everything they get wrong, they don’t
feel they’re brilliant in every way. Therefore, perhaps it’s quite plausible that here too,
you may be seeing things that aren’t there. Why insist, especially when you love your
partner and want to be with them? Here is a nice person telling you you are a bit mad
and imagining things? It’s a dispiriting message, but if disregarding your impulses
(and your emotional needs) is the price you pay for keeping a relationship aloft, maybe
it’s worth it. Maybe it’s worth thinking of yourself as a bit insane. At least you’ll
still have a partner. So, more time passes, and you stay put – and in that time, probably
there are more children, more entanglements, and less of life left for you to build on
afterwards. There is also highly likely to be a destruction of your sense of reality.
You will probably start to feel as mad as you’re being subtly told you are. You might
have a breakdown – which isn’t an ideal backdrop against which to leave anyone.
All that said, in both of the above cases, eventually, you will have to leave. Your long-term
mental well-being depends on it. But it isn’t a picnic, having to leave someone you love;
who says they love you – and who is either falsely promising to change or denying they
need to change because you’re the defective one to begin with.
You will feel extremely alone with this decision. You will be left to wrestle either with feelings
that you are nasty (for leaving someone who is promising again and again to change) or
that you are mad (for leaving someone who tells you you’re demented to doubt their
sincerity). You will have to destroy a relationship that might have children in it on the basis
of nothing more firm than an inner sense that your partner is doing something seriously
deficient to your wellbeing and cannot stop themselves doing it – despite telling you
they love you. And yet you will have to leave. In order to
leave, you will need to think in your mind: I am in love with someone who is damaged.
They cannot realistically change and may even be using me as a reason not to change. Or
they are in denial and are abusing my credulity and self-doubt not to look more honestly into
themselves. And you will have to think: there is probably something in my past, a history
of putting up with intolerable situations, which makes me a long-term sucker for this
sort of suffering. Mountain climbers know that certain peaks
cannot be climbed on one’s own. You need a climbing buddy, and in this context, let’s
call them a psychotherapist or a very very good friend, the sort who can put in the time
to reassure you of your sanity and who can be there for you at the inevitable moments
when you feel like you’re making the worst choice in the world even though, despite your
self-hating feelings that you’re impatient or getting everything wrong, you are in fact
in the process of taking the very best decision of your life. Deciding whether to stay in or leave a relationship is one of the trickiest and consequential decisions we can face. Our Stay or Leave card game can help us towards an answer. Click now to learn more.