Are you thinking of ending a relationship? Are you ambivalent about doing so, or fearful of being alone? Do you long for the high of new love that you had at the beginning, and think it is impossible to get back to that wonderful place? We can get stuck in that swirl of complicated feelings, and either hang on too long or impulsively break up, only to feel regrets either way.
People say these things about their partners when seriously considering ending things:
- I can’t trust him to be honest with me.
- She never listens to me and only talks about herself.
- I don’t feel I have a partner.
- I never feel heard and understood.
- We fight all of the time and it seems so hopeless.
- We’ve been doing this toxic pattern for years.
- I don’t respect him.
- She and I don’t have any mutual interests.
- I’ve given up and don’t know what else to do.
Sound familiar? Here’s what is actually going on in the brain when you consistently think and feel any of the above things. Our calm, rational prefrontal cortex brain goes offline when we get reactive. We begin to operate from the limbic system brain (behind the lower back of the head), also known as the crocodile brain! That part of the brain operates eight times faster than the rational brain. It is the fight/flight part of the brain that tries to protect us from the enemy. And no one triggers our reactivity as much as our partner in a relationship! That person becomes the enemy (in the “mind” of the crocodile brain) and we put up our guard, rather than risking vulnerability by talking calmly to each other about our differences. It’s too scary. Over time, we get more and more distant from our partner, as we keep our barriers to connection up. And that’s when we start thinking about leaving.
Before you throw in the towel, think about whether you can introduce any of these ideas to your partner as a way to suggest the prospect of learning to do something differently, instead of the same old, same old exhausting patterns.
- Talk about what a healthy relationship looks like. If you don’t know, google it!
- Is your partner willing to go to therapy with you, or read a self-help book?
- Would they go to a couples’ workshop, if not therapy?
- Would they listen to a relationship podcast with you, or read articles online?
- Would they be willing to go with you to a pastor or some other spiritual advisor?
- Are they interested in learning new skills—how to communicate without getting reactive; how to talk and listen to understand each other; how to interrupt fights and learn new self-soothing skills in order to calm down for a later discussion?
- Do they want to invest time and energy into making the relationship better?
Remember that no one responds well to an ultimatum. So make sure when you ask these questions that you do so in a neutral, calm voice, without judgment, blaming or shaming. A respectful tone of voice goes a long way in helping you get your ideas across to your partner.Sometimes a partner might feel threatened and get reactive when hearing your thoughts or ideas. If so, back off and give them time to think about it. Bring it up again in a few days. Don’t nag, moralize, scold, or blame, as that just invites the partner’s alligator brain to fight back. Just calmly, respectfully ask a question or two to see if your partner is willing to do anything differently.
If you have done all that you can to invite your partner to grow with you, and you decide “I’m going to fold ‘em,” then do so with grace, not rage. Sometimes people need to go to individual therapy to process all of the complicated feelings regarding breaking up, especially if you are in a marriage or have children together. When you have processed your own feelings, and are clear about what you want to do, then you can tell your partner. Remember the principle of thanking them for all that they have taught you about yourself. Let them know that the relationship the two of you have just isn’t working for you, and that it is time to say goodbye. No long emails/texts/letters about how horrible they have been or all the ways they screwed up. No vicious postings on Facebook or Instagram. Just quietly, calmly say goodbye. And when you have finished your grieving, some time has passed, and you are ready, deal those cards again!