Many of us have been there at one time or another — in a relationship that is causing us stress, maybe too much stress. There is potential for the relationship to fulfill our ideal, but something keeps it from getting there. We end up battling, at times to our own emotional detriment, to keep the relationship going even through a steady chain of unfulfillment. Sometimes we break up, get back together, frustratingly chase and fight for our partner to do better, change, etc. But the question keeps coming up — when is it time to end the relationship and begin the process of moving forward?
Nobody really wants to end a relationship. We put so much emotion, time, and energy into building and growing as couples. But sometimes, in order to realize our own potential and also to satisfy our core needs and goals in life — as well as for our emotional health — ending a relationship becomes the healthier decision,
In an unstable relationship, our hurt emotions and the immediate desire for emotional stability with our partners often cloud the bigger picture. We lose sight of long term emotional health and at times battle for relationships that bring more hurt than partnership. Consider asking yourself the following questions (and even better, discussing these questions with your partner). View each question not only in terms of concrete areas, but also acknowledge emotional priorities in your responses:
1. What are your values?
Start by knowing what’s important in your life. What are the principles you abide by in your life? What do you prioritize? Family, work, travel, children, spontaneity, security, organization, emotional calm, on-the-go lifestyle, etc. Where do you and your partner stand in terms of each other’s values? Even if the values don’t necessarily line up, the more important question is if there is room in the relationship for each other’s values, including room for some compromise?
2. What are your goals?
How do you see your life in the future and what are the milestones you want to accomplish along the way (children, career, house, hobbies, etc.)? Where are you flexible and able to compromise, and what is non-negotiable? Can you and your partner jointly reach your goals together, even if your goals aren’t identical?
3. What is non-negotiable (deal-breakers)?
As alluded to in question 2, there are areas of our lives where we can compromise for the sake of the relationship, and there are areas that aren’t negotiable. Figuring out which of our values, goals, and ideals (including emotional goals — affection, support, listening, sex, etc.) are flexible or non-negotiable will help you to see if and where there is room for work with your partner.
4. What is your level of motivation?
Often couples are frustrated by the “other” seemingly not trying hard enough to “change” to make the relationship better. One of the biggest frustrations I see in relationship therapy is the perceived “empty promise” — a person feels they are actively doing all the work while the other talks about working hard, but doesn’t seem to follow through. However, I’ve also observed that partners are often working on the areas that are less important to the other, so the work is overlooked and this leads to feeling unappreciated. If you feel you’re doing all the work, talk with your partner about the joint level of motivation and discuss the questions above to focus the work on the areas where you can improve your relationship.
5. Cost-Benefit Analysis
Although this isn’t a question, it’s often helpful to get a clear idea of what you’re getting and not getting out of the relationship. On a sheet of paper create two columns. On the left, list the positives of the relationship for you, no matter how small they may seem (even, “they do the dishes every day” counts if it’s positive for you). On the right side, list the points you’d like to see improve. Give a 1-10 weight of importance to the items in each column, 10 being the highest priority in the relationship for you (for example — we have dinner together every night (8 – very important to you); he isn’t as outwardly social with others as I’d like (3 – not too important to you). After you’re done, survey the list as a whole, including the weight of each pro and con to see what is active in your relationship, and what is potential.
It is a common theme that people use past experiences to predict responses from a partner. But it is important to have a conversation about the topics above, even if you believe you know how your partner will respond to each question. The answers may not always match our predictions, and often the predictions cause damage to relationships.
There are many factors involved in understanding our relationships. The topics above are only a few considerations in a much greater process. Seeking professional help (on your own, or together) when struggling in a relationship can elighten us to the dynamics (outward and underlying) and the roles that each person plays in the relationship. The more we understand about our current relationship and our ideal relationship (including what is flexible), the better we can understand the best and most healthy way to make the next decision.