Should We Break Up or Keep Trying?

6 min read
Ekaterina NT/ Pexels

Source: Ekaterina NT/ Pexels

No relationship thrives without some hard work to overcome challenges. At the same time, not all relationships are meant to last. So how do you know when to keep at it and when to let go? Over the course of 20 years in the couples therapist’s seat, I have seen countless couples grapple with this question, and while there is no surefire formula into which to plug your experience, there are some critical questions that may help you determine your next steps.

1. Are you equally invested in creating change in the relationship?

It takes two to tango. If you find that you are trying to drag your partner through the steps necessary to make changes together, it may be a futile effort. This is not always black and white. Your personal growth trajectory does not always line up with your partner’s, so it’s not unusual for one person to be more growth-oriented than the other at any given moment. You may have a period of time when you are growing and desiring change in the relationship and motivated to take action. That same time period may be a season of rest for your partner, or maybe they are in a time of apathy, avoidance, or even disagreement with the idea of needing a change. As long as this mismatch doesn’t last too long, it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker.

Picture a game of leapfrog. You can leap past each other; you can even use each other for support as you move forward. As long as both people ultimately stay in the game, you can still progress together. But, if you find that you are invested in creating change in your relationship and your partner is not, then the gap is likely to grow too large to overcome and both players will find themselves alone. When this happens, both may be left feeling isolated, abandoned, and resentful of the path the other has chosen.

To see if you can close the gap, talk with your partner about your vision of the changes you are desiring and see if you can find common ground. What do you each want the relationship to look like and feel like? What parts of yourselves are wanting expression? What patterns in the relationship dynamics are you needing to outgrow? Is someone holding fears about potential change that can be worked through together? If these are hard conversations to have alone, a couples therapist can help. Sometimes a new common vision materializes and there is a path for fresh optimism and vitality in the union. And sometimes this inquiry can lead to the realization that you desire different things from your partnership. Nobody has to be framed as the villain, but an acknowledgment that you want different things might come as a relief to both of you.

2. Have you challenged yourself to break your part in the pattern rather than just asking your partner to change?

It’s easy to tell our partners what we would like for them to do differently and have them not respond how we would hope. Before you decide to say goodbye, take a look at the problematic cycles and get clarity about the role you play in that dance. I am not asking, “How is it your fault?” I am asking, “What does your half of the dynamic look like?” If you usually withdraw, see what happens if you practice staying engaged even when it’s uncomfortable. If you usually escalate, see what happens if you practice stepping away to calm yourself down and come back to reengage later.

In truth, changing our communication patterns isn’t always enough to make a relationship that has run its course viable again; sometimes the misalignment runs deeper than communication styles. But it is likely that changing these patterns will open up new paths in your relationship, whether that means finding new ways to connect and thrive together or making way for a smoother and more compassionate ending. It’s always worth breaking the communication habits that aren’t serving you. If you don’t, those patterns will likely follow you into your next relationship, so you might as well grow out of them now and see what happens.

Antoni Shkraba / Pexels

Source: Antoni Shkraba / Pexels

3. How long have you been trying to break the cycles you are facing? If they can’t be broken, would you choose to stay?

I’m squeezing two questions into one here because they are inextricably linked. I often hear clients wonder aloud about whether they have “done everything we can,” wanting to feel certain that they have exhausted their efforts so they can let go without doubts or regrets. Unfortunately, life, for the most part, doesn’t come with certainty. Our intuition can be a powerful guide in the face of indecision, but in the confusion of relationship ambivalence and under the influence of fear and grief about an ending, intuition can be hard to access. So how can you determine whether you have “tried hard enough”?

Try to look as realistically as possible at the efforts you have made and what you have learned from them. Have you worked with equal energy toward change? Have you created a common vision that you can lean into? Have you sought professional help so someone outside of the dynamic can show you your blindspots and offer new directions? Do you find that despite your efforts toward change, the problematic dynamics keep repeating? If the cycle of trying to create change has begun to feel exhausting, hopeless, repetitive, or toxic in its own right, then it’s time to ask yourself another important question: If the dynamic can’t be changed, would you choose to stay? When you sit with this question, you may discover that you would choose the relationship as-is over saying goodbye, in which case it’s time to practice acceptance and give yourself a break from the ineffective effort to create change. Let the relationship breathe. Maybe more acceptance will make room for the positives to flow again. If you discover that the current dynamics are not ones you can authentically accept, then it’s time to acknowledge that letting go may be the healthiest next step.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

You May Also Like

+ There are no comments

Add yours