The end of an intimate relationship, as with the end of a friendship, is no cause for celebration. Though a truly toxic relationship must end. If you’ve exhausted all options for correcting the behaviors and healing the wounds, ending the relationship may be the only sensible thing. Then hopefully each of us can go on, learn from our mistakes, and hopefully be a better partner for the next person. As well as to be more discerning when choosing that next person.
Though even “working on” a relationship depends upon both you and your partner being sufficiently invested in the relationship to bother. Toxicity is difficult to correct, though with personal growth, it’s possible. So long as both of you feel it’s worth that effort.
Since my first nonfiction book was based on a multi-year modeling project of successful intimate relationships, I naturally prefer to develop as a partner, heal my wounds, then bid adieu to my baggage before beginning the next relationship. I would urge everyone to also do this within their relationship, becoming better for ourselves and for one another.
But I’m occasionally challenged with the obvious. “So are you saying that any relationship can work? Any partnership can be fixed?” No. Some of us lack the skills needed to be a good partner, or perhaps we lack self-control, self-discipline, are dishonest, or are primarily driven by competing interests. I’ve devoted significant time to women, for example, who were merely using me. A couple of them for money, and one for healing. Which, perhaps ironically, was to reconnect her with money! Where any of those elements are present, both people aren’t meeting on equally respectful, open terms. One or both may not be ready for such a relationship and all it entails.
A reader emailed me after reading “How to NOT Kill Each Other During Lockdown,” saying, “My marriage failed because of one of those bits of advice in the book–maybe obvious, but I overlooked it–‘Make sure you find right person for you.’ I didn’t and after years of trying to make it work, realized my partner wasn’t truly a partner and had no interest in me outside of what I could do for them.” Yes, that hit close to home! “So Chris, in my case, you can’t possibly think I should stay in that relationship, right? I mean, neither of us is likely to change, and it’s not ecological to pretend to be together when we never truly can be. What do you say to that?”
I say that it’s time to begin designing a respectful, considerate means of separating. If you don’t cohabitate or are married, this is of course much easier. Logistically, if not emotionally. But let’s say you are married, the most complex arrangement for that scenario. I’m assuming you’ve already sat down and talked about your issues as a couple. You’ve expressed your needs and where you don’t feel they’re being met, invited your partner to do the same. Then you’ve explored to what degree both of you want the relationship. You’re determining how much effort you want to put into correcting your path.
Let’s say it’s something that either or both of you can control, like sex or other forms of “together” time. You can, in communicating your needs, ask one another to set ego aside for the moment, and explore together how you might better meet those needs together. But let’s assume you’ve tried this and need an impartial third party to assist. Skilled relationship counselors or coaches can be very helpful, but it’s important that you both have realistic expectations. That person can provide assistance, guidance, and a sounding board. But they can’t solve those problems for you. They can point out which work you need to do, but you both will need to do that work. I say this as someone who, early in my marriage, went to a marriage counselor for just that kind of intervention. Though my ex-wife, a good person I still respect very much, didn’t want to hear anything critical about herself. After the counselor asked us to both consider what we could do differently, she became defensive and didn’t wish to continue.
Since we’re looking at ending a marriage, I have to assume that most people would make a sincere effort in counseling. Though you might have either tried counseling and been disappointed with a lack of success–or chosen to bypass it altogether.
The next step would be agreeing that you’d prefer to separate. If it’s easier to call it a “trial separation,” sure, but only in very unusual circumstances does the couple reconcile and grow back together after that. It’s important that you understand this as I’ve seen some people attempt power plays like threatening divorce, “moving out,” and throwing a tantrum, hoping their partner, like some forgiving parent, will placate them, ask them to reconsider, and relinquish some power in the relationship. Once the relationship’s mortality surfaces, my experience says that it’s more a “dress rehearsal for the divorce” than a “trial separation.”
If you have children involved, this is obviously going to be harder. If they are from a former relationship, the custody is typically clearcut. But even where one partner brought children to this relationship, those kids can become very attached to the new step-parent. It’s going to be critical to discuss how you will communicate this to them, and how you will each interact with the kids, going forward.
Logistics are often hard to consider during such emotionally trying times. But figuring out what you as a couple have and how to split it equitably will be important. We’ve all known couples who’ve had bloody divorce cases in which the couple fought over silverware and table linens.
The priority is moving on with your lives, not getting the last word or denying your former partner the satisfaction of “winning” even a scrap that you might want.
Having those difficult conversations is important and where you find points of conflict–you both want that antique bureau–it’s critical to negotiate. You’re both already losing something valuable by losing the other person, along with the relationship, itself. There’s no reason to make it harder by fighting over things.
Outside of dividing property, there are other basic logistics. Do you need to sell the house? Are you both on the mortgage? Will one agree to refinance in their own name? Does your state call for spousal support? In Texas, a Community Property state, spousal support is unusual, though each person gets half the assets owned. That means that if one person will maintain that home and the other simply vacates, you must work out how to deal with any financial obligations.
Your own circumstances will dictate any additional logistics, but I want to address the emotional aspects as well. When that ex-wife and I were divorcing, we fought over nothing. We negotiated several things we each wanted and each compromised. Though we did it with mutual respect and (I believe) a sincere desire to do no harm. On the day of our divorce hearing, for example, she had car trouble and asked for a ride. I picked her up at the house I used to share with her and we had a civil, if awkward, conversation on the way to the courthouse.
Maybe it was just me, but the drive back to drop her off seemed easier. it was done. There were a number of times in the months and years that followed in which we were each able to demonstrate our respect and concern for the other, verifying that I hadn’t imagined the civility.
My point isn’t to boast that I’m good at divorces or breakups. But rather to illustrate that, if you’ve given up on the relationship, there truly isn’t any reconciliation you want to pursue, then allowing each person their dignity, treating one another with kindness and decency, can help both of you in the healing process.
Breaking up is never easy, but you could always make it harder. But you have a life ahead of you and if you get stuck in the quicksand, bogged down with old feelings, old struggles that, on petty whims, you worsened, moving forward would become that much more difficult.
And what’s ahead is far more amazing than you can even imagine at this point.
Copyright © 2022 Chris Gingolph