Clues to when to accept a relationship is over and when to slow down
An acquaintance of mine recently surprised me by saying that he was in the middle of getting divorced. When I voiced my surprise he said,” You know, it’s like that built-in timer on the turkey – when it pops up you know it’s done.”
Great analogy but also an intriguing idea. Most of us don’t have that pop-up timer within us or our relationships to let us know when we’re done. So how do you really know when your relationship is over? Some clues:
No sex, steady decrease in affection. You might have been in the 3 times a week club or the once in 3 months club. But when sex starts to get backburnered and drops off – the headache, too busy, working late, kids may come in – or everyday affection patterns get dissolved – the wave of hand goodbye out the door, no kiss – it ain’t good. A big symptom of disconnection. It may be temporary reaction to stress, but if it’s been going on for sometime an indicator. The descent may not be a straight line to the bottom — you both may make half-hearted attempts to reignited the connections – the out-of-the-blue quickie at 6 am or 11 pm. But because of general malaise in the relationship and the overall disconnect, it goes nowhere — headaches, work, etc. become the wall blocking the attempt.
Communication down overall. Dinner conversations are about…well, nothing. Or a 3 minute summary of work, a total focus on the kids and their using their forks correctly. And after dinner is over there is the drifting towards video games, or getting kids in bed, orFacebook. Time off is not much different. If you have kids (thanks god) there’s a focus on all those weekend soccer games or going to the park. If not, back online, bringing work home, mowing grass.
This is the structure of parallel lives, avoiding conversation about elephants in the room (or conversation in general), side-stepping conversations of any substance or intimacy because of fear of arguing, being dismissed, confirming that your worse fears are actually…real worst fears. Because everyone is awkward and walking on eggshells 24/7, there are all kinds of “reasons” not to do things together.
Ramp up of pet peeves. Her nose is too big, he belches at the table, the sponge is left soggy in the sink. All this gets worse…and worse. You argue all the time about this small and occasionally bigger stuff, but you know the drill – regardless of what you say or what the topic is, you know how this is going down, and at best it goes nowhere, at worse, it…well, usually ain’t pretty.
What’s happening with this increased sensitivity to trivial stuff is your brain is trying to connect the dots between your emotions and external behaviors. You emotionally feel disconnected, maybe at the verge of leaving, and so, thanks to beauty and power ofcognitive dissonance you need to bring your thoughts and feelings in line. So you stack up evidence to bolster your mental case about why you feel the way you do, why this isn’t working, why you should leave. Get enough stuff in place and all the dots connect. Hence the all-encompassing big nose.
Fantasies of escape, life after. You’re thinking about a new relationship or life in a quiet apartment by yourself. It’s easy to enveloped in these thoughts, and sometimes they are escape outlets when you feel particularly trapped. But if such fantasies happen more and more frequently with more and more detail as to when and how (I’m sorry, this is a bad analogy, but those struggling individuals thinking about suicide do much the same – their plans become more and more specific as they fine-tune their escape from life) yoursubconscious is sending you strong messages that maybe that it’s time to get out.
That said, here’s the maybe. There’s an important opportunity here that you may not want to overlook. Big decision-making follows an arc from low grade concern and specificity to ever increasing concern and specificity. You probably know this from job search. You apply to a company, you’re interested, but it’s only during the interview process and physically walking around the building and seeing your future cubby that you get a clearer sense of how you really feel about the job. This is the same process for the runaway bride or groom – it’s only when the Wedding March starts playing that they realize in their gut that it’s time to split.
The point here is when you are dangling on the top of that arch – the bags are packed and ready to go – is also when you are likely to be most clear, when the other competing voices begin to take hold. It’s also a time, when you have this clarity to slow down and define how you feel and what you are and not willing to do.
Don’t just blow this off as cowardice or second thoughts. Consider the two sides of the argument and pay to attention to which is stronger. If one part of you clearly says that yes, it’s time to leave, or to at least get some space and clear your head and see what happens next, go for it. If another part says, wait, there’s more to try, possibilities for change, pay attention. Don’t rush it – you may need or second or third mental pass to see what sticks. But see if there is message to consider.
Of course these are never easy decisions or ever “Right” decisions. There will be days, depending on how your life is going, that you wished you stayed and tried, others where you’re grateful that you took the leap. This is ever re-processing of our pasts. But when you’re in the thick of it, when emotions, events, and details overwhelm you, you don’t want to be 100% reactive. Do the step-back, look for the big patterns, look at the big picture in terms of what your life has been telling you.
Step up, be decisive, but realize that you are free to change your mind.