"How do I know when it's over? When is it time to call it quits?" These are perhaps the questions I get asked the most as a couples counselor. Generally speaking, couples wait too long before coming to see me, so when they finally arrive, they're deep in struggle and uncertainty.
Whether to stay or go is often the question on the table. The question that no one knows the answer to.
My job is to help them get clear. On what's true for them. On what they want. And on the dynamics that are playing out in their relationship. Then we work on healing, which sometimes means staying together and sometimes means separating.
And while each case is SO individual, there are a handful of distinctions that I use to help support people around whether it's time to stay or go.
Here's what to consider if you're uncertain or if breaking up is on the table.
- Have you gotten outside support or reflection from someone you trust? Even just one couples session with a good therapist can help you get a lot of clarity. And I list this one first because often when couples are struggling, they do work at it together, but can go round and round and not make much progress. You'd be surprised how much it helps to have a witness and outside perspective. I say this is always the first place to start.
- If you've done a lot of couples work already, then check in with your heart. How open is it to your partner? There are always times your heart will be closed to them, but is that the predominant experience, or are you still able to find The Zone of Play together sometimes? If you've already gotten outside support and try as you might, you just can't keep your heart open with them, it might be time to consider ending it.
- You know that intimate relationships trigger your deepest wounds and sensitivities, but how much is too much? There is such a thing as a toxic level of trigger. If you're both triggered a lot and the wounds run deep, the relationship might actually be too overwhelming. For me, the sweet spot is where you find a good balance between working with and learning from your triggers and also being able to have fun together and share trust and love.
- Get honest with yourself about your endurance and your willingness. I can usually tell right away the couples who're still inspired by the relationship and the internal work they could do together. And other times I can tell that one or both partners are just exhausted and don't have the heart or the endurance to stay and work through it. And there's a biiiig area in the middle. Often, I help people get clear about where they are on that spectrum.
- Have you taken some space apart to reorient to your own life? This can often help bring more clarity, settle away from the triggers, and put you back in touch with yourself, which is usually how you know what's true for you and what you want.
- Finally, if you're struggling, but you're still together, what's keeping you together? Check in and see if you're motivated by love, inspiration, or creativity, or if perhaps it's fear or obligation.
Ultimately, remember that the "right" answer is the one that's true for you. No matter how many times I say that to people, they still want to know what's the "right" thing (the most growthful, the most supportive, the most in integrity). People want to get it right. Which proves what difficult territory this can be.
What have you learned in your experiences around breaking up or staying together? Any big lessons to share here? Leave a comment below and let me know.
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