The End Game


When Relationships Come to a Close. Sometimes knowing when to call it quits is harder than making the decision to form the relationship.

When the topic is relationships, most of what we hear and read about is how to have one. There is no shortage of books, articles, featured guests on TV shows or therapists, for that matter, that are quick to tell us the secrets of connecting with an intimate partner. There is a plethora of information out there on how to better communicate, have better sex, resolve conflict, manage joint finances or just about any other relationship issue you can think of.

What seems to be missing, however, is a discussion on how to end a relationship. Maybe this particular topic is ignored because it does not feel good to talk about it. Or maybe the topic is avoided because no one wants to be seen as the grim reaper of relationships. It could be that this issue gets limited air time because this is the one part of a relationship that is often the hardest to do and the one we most often mess up big time! But it can be, in some respect, the most powerful part of a relationship, dictating how we engage potential future partners. Relationship endings, if left to our emotional brains alone, can leave both partners feeling horribly wounded, terrified and turned off by the idea of ever meeting someone new. As a professor of mine in graduate school told me years ago, “How we are told ‘good-bye’ affects how we say ‘hello.’’’

Bad good-byes hurt. Endings can certainly sting, especially if it is an unexpected or explosive exit. Cheating–unfortunately, a rather common exit. Walking out with no explanation–or a weak one at best. Ceasing all communication out of the blue–no returned calls, texts or emails. Or an intense argument where words are weaponized to cut each other to the core, leaving the attachment ruptured with nothing left to repair. These and other bad break-up scenarios can be excruciating, but the emotional damage can be limited if both partners are able to temper their emotions and think, not just feel, their way through the process.

As a marriage and family therapist, I have had the opportunity to work with couples as they struggle to determine which path they want their relationship to take. Some decide to keep at it and choose to devote the time and energy needed to keep the relationship alive. Others want out and opt to pull the plug on a relationship that is already on life support. And I am always curious as to why someone wants to end it because, as I have learned, it is usually the why that determines the how, i.e., the escape route.

What makes a good relationship go bad? According to clinicians Terry Hargrave and Freannz Pfitzer, we enter into an intimate partnership with a “ledger” comprised of both entitlements (what we are expected to receive from our partner) and obligations (what we are expected to give our partner). And what are these expectations? Respect. Care. Intimacy (this includes sexual, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual). Although the “ledger” may not be balanced at a particular given time, it must be balanced over time for there to be trust established. You may be giving more right now, but there needs to be a time when you are receiving more for it all to balance out. if one continues to give more than they receive, then resentment can start to seep in. This is not uncommon when someone enters a new relationship with a deficit in any one or all areas and expects (albeit, unconsciously) the current partner to make up for the failures of a past partner.

Another potential pitfall is when you give your partner what you need and not what he needs. For instance, if you give your partner what you need to feel cared for, not what he needs to feel cared for, then your honest attempt at balancing the equation will always miss the mark, leaving you frustrated and him resentful, feeling like his needs are being ignored. He accuses you of being selfish; you lash back for feeling unappreciated… and thus the dance begins!

Chronic resentment, broken trust, a lack of mutual devotion, being mistreated can all destroy the best of relationships. And regardless of how bad it may be, leaving a relationship is very difficult, for we are not only leaving a person, but all the hope and energy and time we have invested. The more we have invested, the more difficult the leaving. Yet no matter how painful it may be, we can give our soon-to-be ex-partner and ourselves one final gift–a civil good-bye.

Keep thinking your way through the process–this will help you manage your intense negative feelings and hopefully allow you to choose words and actions based on thoughts and not on the strong emotions. As a good friend and colleague of mine says: “Hurt people hurt people.” Be careful.

Man up and do it face-to-face. End the relationship in person instead of with a text message, voicemail or email.

Take responsibility for your part of the problem–it always takes two to have conflict.

Listen to your soon-to-be ex and validate their concerns– validation is in no way the same thing as agreement, instead it is simply letting him know you see his perspective, whether you agree with it or not.

Communicate your concerns with I-statements–starting sentences with “you” are too accusatory and will add fuel to the fire while I-statements are much more disarming.

Take some time for yourself before starting another relationship–consider how this relationship changed you, how you grew. And take time to grieve what you had and now is lost.

Finally, let go and move on–the more you stay focused on the ex, the more likely you will miss noticing the guy you most deserve to be with.

And in the process of saying good-bye trust the wisdom of Sigmund Freud: “We become whole through relationships and through letting go of relationships.”


Did You Know?

A study found that over a 12-year period, more than 20% of gay couples ended their relationship. (Kurdek, 2004)

Research shows that, compared to straight couples, gay couples are not as domineering or fearful and use more humor when they argue, but are worse at “repairing” or making up after an argument. (Gottman & Levenson)