The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center offers couples counseling for those couples and individual who are struggling in relationships.

The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center offers couples counseling for those couples and individual who are struggling in relationships.

Should I break up with my romantic relationship?      

            There are no perfect relationships. No matter how much you love someone, there are always those grin-and-bear-it moments where they are messier around the house than you wish they were, uptight about spending when you want to have fun on your birthday, disinterested in your amazing video game skills. None of these things alone is worth giving up on a relationship, yet if your daily experience of your beloved is conflict, venom or being ignored, those things add up. Such patterns are damaging over time to the mental health and emotional well-being of both partners. Yet, when is enough enough? Since no one is perfect, how the hell can you tell if you are running away from something good that could get better or staying too long in something toxic? There are also no perfect bloggers or sets of answers. So, what I am going to write here is not a process that can guarantee you will make the right choice. Below are some questions I would encourage you to ask yourself and maybe those you trust before you walk away.

Though I will be writing in the framework of ending a romantic relationship, I feel this process is somewhat adaptable to other important relationships. Though, the “honeymoon phase” is different with friends and family, essentially lasting a lot longer. I do not believe any relationships are off limits to break-ups. Sometimes walking away is truly the best, or only, path for two people (or more) to find healing and happiness. Break-ups from close friends and between family members are uniquely painful. Social stigma is often imposed on those who feel the need to step away from family. Many may spend decades trying to decide if they can tolerate “breaking up” with a relative and bearing the guilt and shame of the stigma in addition to their grief and loss at the separation. Yet, I have seen such endings produce brighter worlds and kinds of growth that my clients would likely not have found while mired in toxic family dynamics.

 

            Question 1. Have you talked to this person about the problems you have with them? Some people have a really hard time with conflict. They stew. Their partner hasn’t done the dishes once in the three years they have lived together. Though they have never said a word, they have come to loathe the sight of them, because of the stewing. Obviously, the partner is more than a little spoiled and entitled if they have avoided the dishes for 3 years. Yet, the biggest problem in the relationship, stewer, is your silence. If you had talked to them 3 years ago, or even 2, they might have been just fine doing dishes. Perhaps they would not have been, and this would have unraveled your relationship. Yet, by not risking conflict you have eroded the love in your relationship. Now you are miserable and ready to bounce. This is not fair to either of you or the chance you might have had. Though, it is understandable.

            We all learn how to be in relationships by watching our parents. If your parent was able to stay long-term in a miserable relationship, you may have deeply sewn unconscious beliefs that this is what life is supposed to look like. If you grew up in a family where anger and conflict were either absent or out of control, your silence may have been very adaptive and logical. The work of changing conflict-avoidant patterns is a big undertaking. When you start changing developmental habits like that, early attempts can feel impossible, like trying to punch someone in a nightmare. When you do first start having conflict, it may feel like it is coming from an infantile or childish place in you. The words you say may sound infantile or childish. This is because you got frozen in your aggression at the age you last expressed it. If that was 2, well then, welcome back to your 2-year old aggression when your partner does the dishes after you stammer out how fed up you are, and soaks the kitchen floor with water and stands in it in dirty boots. None of this is fun. But, this is the work of relationship at its finest, bringing us into greater wholeness and maturity. All of this can be helped by a therapist and/or couple’s therapist.

Why would you do all this work in a relationship? See question number two.

            If you have no such conflict-avoidant tendencies and you aren’t talking to your love about the dishes or whatever, ask yourself why. Is it because you already know you are just not interested in maintaining this relationship? If you know there is an expiration date on your fling or that someone is fun for now, but not for life, that is more than ok. Save yourself the agonizing roller coaster of indecision if you are agonizing to avoid guilt over having a relationship you don’t necessarily want to last forever. Be honest about where you are at.  The more you can communicate your boundaries and own your level of investment in the relationship, the more your partner can make conscious decisions about their level of investment with you. Just let it be fun until it isn’t fun and then let it go. There is no need to torture yourself or them because they aren’t “the one.”

Question 2. Is it just that the honeymoon is over?

            Joseph Campbell brilliantly and succinctly breaks down the Jungian view of the Self and the Self-in-relationship in his charming way in the first episode of his Mythos series, Psyche and Symbol. I recommend you watch it. I will say here, in a slightly less charming way perhaps, that a lot of the first stage, “the honeymoon phase,” is about projections. We see a spark of something in someone that fires up some inner fairy tale and then we confuse the person in front of us with the fairy tale within us. This daze of confusion is a big part of the experience of falling in love, not to be unromantic. Eventually, the confusion breaks into clarity because we are in relationship with a real person. When this clarity comes it can feel a lot like falling out of love, even like betrayal that this person isn’t who you thought they were. Be careful about how much blame you put on them for this betrayal. They did not necessarily ask to or want to be confused for your fairy tale.

            When the reality of the person in front of you loses the sparkle of perfection, when the sex starts to be less organic or less constant, when your love disappoints you or has emotional experiences (depression, anxiety, anger) that you don’t find adorable or even know how to deal with, this is where the work of relationship begins. The length of the honeymoon varies. You might live in euphoria and projections for two weeks or two years. I would say 3-6 months is most common. If you are new to long-term relationships, the end of the honeymoon may feel like something you cannot get past. In fact, I think most people probably tend to sever their first few relationships at the end of the initial bliss because the change feels so dramatic. Yet, if you are ever going to have a lasting relationship, learning how to live through the rough times is important. We sometimes imagine the “rough” times in a relationship looking like great shared losses, financial turmoil or other big events. The truth is, often the “rough” times are about boredom, annoyance, internal emptiness our partner can’t fill, or allowing our partner to grapple with their internal emptiness, knowing we can’t fill that void. This can all feel like unromantic, unexciting deadness when it follows on the heels of six months of hot sex, bliss and laughter.

            There are no quick fixes for the end of the honeymoon phase, kinda by its very nature. If you have come to this place and bailed in past relationships and you are really looking to make this time different, I strongly recommend you get therapeutic support to help you move your relationship to the next level. This is also a time for you to do some deep soul searching about what you want out of relationships. Do you want a long-term relationship? Or would you like to just keep having new honeymoons? Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with either strategy. It just really helps to be honest with yourself and your partners about what you are actually interested in. The work of long term relationships is beautiful stuff. I truly believe it is one of our greatest teachers and richest paths to wholeness. But, it is not always easy, fun or sexy. If you keep dumping people because the thrill is gone, assuming you will eventually find the person to live out your fairy tale with, you may be setting yourself up for a long series of heartbreaks. You are also setting yourself up to potentially hurt and disappoint many sincere folks who want to love you, imperfect as they may be.

Question 3. Is this thing that I am hoping to leave behind in this relationship something that I am just going to take with me into another relationship, and if so, would I be better off just to work it out here, with this person?

            We all have our shit. This is maybe the first rule of the human psyche. Our crap is actually a lot of what confronts us at the end of the first stage of the relationship. As I have said before, our early relationships with parents and the relationships between our parents set our templates. In what Freud called the repetition compulsion we repeat this template in future close relationships, more or less trying to figure it out. That is why you may find yourself asking why you always strangely end up with the same kind of jerk. You are built to find that jerk, and until you understand why and heal the thing in you that was hurt as a kid that keeps seeking this hurt again, you will find an infinite supply of that type of jerks in your world. After a few rounds of this you may be catching on. If you are considering breaking up with someone because they make you feel shame for flirting with other people, yet you notice this has also been true of your last three partners, this is maybe not entirely about them.

            This is complicated territory, and yes, predictably I am going to recommend you get the help of a therapist. To continue this example let’s say Ash is in a relationship with Bo. Ash notices feeling shamed about flirting, Bo feels terrified Ash is going to leave. Both partners have experienced these feelings in other relationships. They really want to stay together and are trying to work it out. Ash may feel that what Bo calls flirting is just being nice, while not looking at the fact that unconsciously they are constantly cultivating other people’s sexual interest to feed their insecurities. All of the insecurities Ash isn’t looking at in themself get projected onto Bo, who is more overtly anxious about losing the relationship. In the meantime Bo has rejected long ago the part of them that is attracted to people all the time because it feels overwhelming and like a betrayal of fidelity. They are projecting a lot of their repressed sexuality onto Ash. Both of these projections have also found good “hooks” in the other person, because Ash really does flirt and Bo really is insecure. So it may be very hard to see how this is about you as an individual as long as your partner is actually doing the thing that hurts you. This is why having therapeutic support is important. Having someone who can help you sort out what both you and your partner are contributing to your dynamics can be vital. There is almost no way to separate this out from the inside with any real clarity.

            The bottom line is if you have been here before, odds are you will be here again with someone else. That does not mean the current person you are with is the right person. Certainly, if you have abusive patterns you are working out in a relationship, you may need to do some of the work alone, before you find someone who won’t actively abuse you. Even in the absence of abuse, you might be better off working this out with someone else. Maybe the current partner is too potent a dose of the problematic dynamic, or maybe they are unwilling to look at their part. However, I want to encourage you to weigh out the question of whether or not leaving this relationship will actually accomplish getting away from the problem. If you love the person you are with, and they seem ready to look at their shit too, why not stick it out and see how far you can get in resolving it? Even if this doesn’t eventually mean you stay together, I do believe it will put you a bit further down the path to finding better relationships.

 Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center and content Writer for The SF Marriage and Couples Center.

Completing a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Alice has learned to combine modern insights in attachment, mindfulness, trauma, gender and sexuality with an auto-didactically accumulated knowledge of Jungian psychology, and a wide variety of mystical and spiritual traditions. They currently practice as an MFT Trainee at the Integral Counseling Center and content Writer for The SF Marriage and Couples Center.

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