When and Why to End a Relationship

Tips for solving intolerable problems, plus four questions to ask before you pull the plug.

In 1975, Paul Simon opined about the “50 ways to leave your lover.” Simon’s classic song focuses on the “how to” of breaking up (“Just drop off the key, Lee”), not on the why or the when.

But the why and the when are the hardest parts, so I want to address them here.

When and Why to End a Relationship

To begin, ending a low quality relationship can be associated with considerable improvement in our wellbeing. There is a point at which it makes good sense to get out of a bad relationship. This even holds true for children and divorce: Ending a highly conflicted marriage can be good for children in time (a good thing to remember when you’re wondering if you should “stay together for the kids”).

Let’s take a look at what to consider before deciding if it's time to break up.

In a prior column, I introduced the idea of an intolerable problem. An intolerable problem can be about virtually anything, but the key element is that you can’t stand it—your relationship problem is ruining your life. You think about it all day; it keeps you up at night, and, quite often, you fight about it with your partner.

QUIZ: What's Your Relationship Style?

In many cases, when we have an intolerable problem, we create distance with our partners. We avoid each other, lose our connection, and, over time, drift apart. This distance itself becomes a problem.

Fixing Intolerable Problems

If you have an intolerable problem, think about whether the problem is solvable. You might come to the conclusion—plain and simple—that your partner is not a reliable or trustworthy person. He or she is, for example, a serial cheater and will likely cheat again. If the problem is unsolvable—and some problems truly are—it’s time to “cut bait” and break up (more on this below).

However, perhaps you reason, for example, that you played a role in your partner’s cheating; the two of you had grown apart emotionally and your partner was really just looking for some sort of emotional connection with someone. Well, this sounds like a more solvable problem, and I think you can proceed with caution.

If you determine that your problems are solvable, ask yourself if the problem is one of excess or deficit. By that I mean, is the problem one of “too much” (jealousy, talking, selfishness, drinking, rigidity, secrecy, spending) or “not enough” (appreciation, support, sex, emotional openness, alone time)? Be as specific as possible about what you want your partner to do more or less of.

Now it’s time to share your thoughts and feelings.

COLUMN: How to Fight Right

First, describe the problem as you see it. To avoid putting your partner on the defense, state your feelings in a descriptive and specific manner.

For example, “I’ve gotten to the point where I just can’t handle your jealousy. I know you love me, but every time I get a text from my guy friends, I feel like your response is way out of proportion. You hound me and hound me about it. It’s not just the texting; whenever I go out with my friends I feel like you’re monitoring me all the time about every little detail. For me, it feels like you don’t trust me. I really need and want this to change. What do you think?”

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