Wouldn’t it be convenient if every time a relationship was over, you were sure? The love ended. Your feelings all resolved.
That would be great. But as someone who has sat in the office right next door to marriage and family therapist's office for the last 28 years, my experience is that relationships die a long, slow death that often end in fiery crashes and restraining orders but those outward circumstances are not signs of ending...in fact, I have seen many dramatic scenes such as this saved from the scrap heap, only to endure more of the same.
What I have learned is that people change just enough so they don’t have to change....
The most powerful feeling in the world is this desire to change or for change and the only power in the universe stronger is the desire not to change or for no change. It is the great paradox.
I have heard so many times the following and I may have even said some of these myself...
“I can’t stand it when she does _________!” Well maybe you should talk to her about that....”Well, she can’t help it so what is the point?”
“If he would only ___________, then we would be happy!”
“It is just a rough patch, it will get better.” How? What are you going to do to change the present “rough patch”? “I don’t know...it will just pass with time.”
“I think we need counseling...” Will he/she go to counseling? “Probably not, they don’t really see an issue.”
“I am unhappy and I try to talk to him about it, but he says he doesn’t see anything wrong...he always has some simple explanation as to why we are the way we are, and when he is done, there is really nothing left to discuss, he has explained my feelings away...” Really? Do your feelings just go away? “No, but maybe it is me, maybe I am the problem, he thinks everything is fine.” Well, how can everything be fine when you are unhappy?
I could go on and on and on...like forever.
It would be so much easier if relationships had a definitive beginning and ending. But what I have seen, and experienced, is that, not unlike divorce, there is a beginning and a middle, and a middle, and a middle and then an ending at some point, way the fuck down the line.
I know that I want all my complicated, messy feelings to be neatly resolved. I don’t want to love that person anymore, I don’t want to like them anymore, I want to be sure that the relationship is really over, like I want a sign from God confirming my feelings. And I want to have an easy exit. And then I want to never, ever think about it again. Decision made. Don’t look back.
But as much as I would like to tell you this was the case, and sometimes I have even deluded myself that any of the above was true, in reality, none of it is.
Everyone I have ever broken up with I have still loved on some level, liked and even still wanted on some level. I will be the first to say that if the sexual connection is gone, or lagging, that is the best signpost of a relationship being over. Most people, except sociopaths, cannot maintain a loving, sexual connection to someone they no longer love or care about. And the sociopaths are only acting anyway...
So when is it over?
In my experience, most relationships end years before they actually end. My own marriage was over at least five years before I finally left. I know the exact moment in time. I know exactly when I left the marriage and I think he did too. We never talked about it because I don’t think he was really capable, his defenses too impenetrable, and my trauma too great and unhealed. There was nowhere for us to go. We remained trapped in this marital death spiral...for years I waited for a sign that something would change, that he would change, or I would find the willingness to stop needing and wanting what I needed and wanted. But that never happened.
I am a believer that the ending happens when it is time. And that isn’t always matched up very well when the level of misery and pain is most acute. High emotions bring doubt. After a good row, most people review the events and that review causes doubt, insecurity and fear. And those feelings create staying power you didn’t know you had.
It would be so much easier if we were better able to accurately assess when we stop loving the person we are committed to and when I say love I mean in all the ways. But in most relationships I see (and I am granting that I only see and am privy to the ones that are breaking against their own shores) people stopped loving each other, if they had any to begin with.
Love requires sacrifice and action. Love is something you do, and then you feel it. In most relationships I see, love is the leading and prevailing thought without putting the work in. There might be the promise of sacrifice and action, but if we trace the relationship back to its inception, it is usually one person who is doing the majority of the work while the other reaps the benefits. And the dynamic is set. And this becomes a paradigm that isn’t ever really going to change. One person takes on all the working responsibility in the relationship while the other coasts...and then when the relational worker bee finally stops to see that they are doing all the heavy lifting, and has the temerity to call their partner out, it is way past too late. For the other person, whose free relational ride, is interrupted, the backlash is rarely good.
And I get it. If one person really takes on the lion’s share of relational work, why on earth would the other person want to change that? I mean would you? If all of your needs were being met with minimal effort on your part, would you really be open to someone telling you that that all had to change?
Now I wish this is the place where I could say, “fuck no, I would want to do the work...” And if we had a crystal ball that looked back in time, I am sure we could find a few instances that would point me out to be a big, fat liar.
I am more like everyone else than I would ever like to admit. And when I have engaged in relationships where I received a great deal of the benefit, I didn’t want change. I wanted things to stay the same. And when the other person commanded my interest for a conversation that threatened my security, I did not handle it well.
Most of the time though I am on the other side. I am the one who is unhappy with the paradigm I helped create. I feel trapped and I begin to leave long before any leaving is done. This is the place I end up and for many years, the only recourse I had was to beat myself against the brick wall I was dating or married to, demanding, begging, reasoning why they needed to change.
And yet I keep trying...
I guess what I have learned is that it is over when I finally accept that I am never going to be happy in this relationship. That the person I have chosen to be my everything, can never live up to that. And no matter how willing and amenable I am to change, they just aren’t capable, or willing.
And that is a hard place to be. And you would think with the number of times I have been there, I would have learned this lesson a very long time ago. But I have not. Shit. Fuck. Damn.
The ending, for me, and countless others, is the day we all accept that though we may love, need, want, desire, this other person, our most fundamental relationship (with ourselves) can’t move forward so long as we are tied to this person. And it is then, and only then, that I see most people leave.
It is easy to have an affair. Or two or three. I don’t know why we human think that involving another person in an already fraught situation is a good idea, but we do. And that is the ending of so many relationships I see, the beginning of another relationship is the only thing, that once found out, really ends the first one.
And I think that affairs happen because of the lies we tell ourselves. So much easier to ascribe good intentions and hot sex with someone who is new to you. Someone who doesn’t leave dirty dishes in the sink. Doesn’t piss you off by giving you shit for your birthday you don’t like. This new person is a blank slate and you can write on it whatever story you like....until you wake up one day and find that the same thing has happened again. Maybe this time you are on other side. But probably not. We tend to be pretty routine in our relational responses usually in an effort to heal a wound that we aren’t even really sure we have.
It is over when we decide we have had enough. We have been in enough rounds that kick our ass with no real change so that our giant delusional belief system that this person we are partnered with is ever going to be there for us in all the ways we need, hope and desire, finally pops.
We are never going to be 100% sure. And those pesky feelings are not going to be all resolved. We are going to have moments where we still love them, want them, desire them. The pull to not leave will come back with a vengeance at times. And we will succumb more times than we would like. It is hard to leave when you still need the person, or love them. But needing and loving are often not enough, sadly. And the corners we paint ourselves into are, in the end, too confining for any real life to be lived.
When it is over differs for each of us. But I believe we all know it, this overness reverberates in that place in our bodies, minds and heart where we know we aren’t done yet but we also know that continuing is folly. Things are not likely to change enough to ever, ever make this right again, if it ever was to begin with. The ending comes when we stop telling ourselves the relational fable that is designed to keep us tied to this person that is really not right for us on so many levels.
It is over when we admit to our inner most selves that we picked wrong. We did the thing again where we believe that if we just did all the work that it could work. Where if we just loved enough, supported enough, gave enough, forgave enough, that one day magically, this other person would see us and all our efforts and appreciate them, and us. Most importantly they would see and appreciate us.
And the day we realize this is the day it is over. Now the ending may come later, at some other breaking point down the line. But it is over when we accept that there is nothing we can do to make this other person love us, need us, want us, care about us, value us or work with us. They either want to or they don’t. And that is a very painful thing to accept. So many of us don’t which is why the ending part usually takes years. Layer on top of that, fear of being alone, fear of financial insecurity, children, houses, the concept of family and you have a lot of good reasons to attempt to change that which is unchangeable by you...who this other person you love is and how they show up.
I have tilted at that particular windmill more times than I would like to admit. And I am pretty sure I am not done yet. This seems to be my ever evolving and recurrent lesson: It is over before it really got going, and I seem to be the one who has spent a great deal of time and effort convincing myself that something else was going on all the while.
You cannot make someone love you back. You cannot make them want you or care about you or show up for you. And I am here to tell you that all efforts to change this most basic fact are ruinous for your self worth and esteem.
For me, most of my relationships were over after six months. That seems to be where the magic wears off and I am finally capable of seeing who and what I am really dating. And if there is one thing that I know with absolute certainty: ALL of my efforts after this point have not served me well at all. They have brought a lot of pain, a lot of confusion, a lot of heartbreak...but they have never, ever brought me what I needed and desired most: this person I love to see me and want to show up for me in all the ways that I show up for them. And the most true thing I know is that it is over when I finally have the courage to admit that to myself, about myself and this other person I have dressed up in all this fantasy and magical thinking.
Being over is not the same as ending. If it were, there would be a lot of people who would not fuck up our lives and relationships to the degree and level we do. Over is something we admit to ourselves, ending is when we finally include the other person in our most honest assessment of where we stand. Over is our decision, ending is actually a lot more involved and prone to much sadness and heartbreak. Which is likely why we delude ourselves into never really getting honest about how over it we really are...