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,
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.