One of the toughest boundary questions that I hear people asking is how to know whether (and when) it’s time to end a relationship that’s not working for them. It’s a tough question, one that we can only answer for ourselves. But if you’re facing this decision with a partner, a friend or a relative, there are some questions you can ask yourself to help you decide what’s best for you.
How bad is it?
If you’re considering ending a relationship, you’re probably feeling disrespected. On a scale of 1 to 10, how deep is that disrespect? At the low end, you might be feeling ignored or forgotten because your BFF has a new love. You miss her, but you know she won’t stay away too long. At a 10, someone is playing serious mind games with you. Whether it’s about aggression, gaslighting or something else, it can’t continue. Chances are your life won’t be OK until you find a way to leave.
Can we talk?
It’s also important to know whether you can talk things through with this person. Some people can accept negative feedback, especially when they see that you’re feeling hurt. Others turn everything against you. What kind of person are you dealing with? Have you tried to talk about things? If you haven’t, you might want to give it a try before walking away.
How important is this relationship?
Knowing how important a relationship is can help you to decide how much effort to put in. If you’re struggling with someone who only calls when they want something from you, or someone you’ve drifted away from, you may decide enough is enough. And “leaving” may be a simple matter of becoming less available. If the relationship isn’t that important to either of you, it will quickly fade away.
If you’re having trouble with someone more important to you, though, that changes things. If you’re an entrepreneur, you won’t just walk away from every difficult customer. And you’ll certainly think long and hard before leaving your spouse or life partner.
What do my values say?
Before you decide where your boundaries lie, it’s important to check in with your values. How do you feel about being lied to? Does it matter what the lie is about? What if someone puts themselves first when you think there’s something important at stake?
And what if you’re in a toxic relationship with one of your parents? Or an adult child? Does your value system say that you can’t leave? Would you feel like a terrible person? If so, do you think that’s because society (or your family or religion) says you must be loyal to your family? Or is it because that’s what’s right for you?
Some people put up with toxic behavior from close family members for their entire lives because they can’t walk away. If you feel a sense of duty toward someone who disrespects you, only you can decide where to draw the line.
What stops me from leaving?
Ending a relationship can bring up our worst fears:
- What will people think?
- Will that person look for revenge?
- Will you get tongue-tied and look like a fool?
- Will you feel guilty hurting someone, even though that person has been hurting you for months or even years?
Some people stay to avoid the fear, while for others it’s a matter of keeping their word or doing their duty. It doesn’t really matter what stops you, as long as you understand it. If the fear is stronger than your courage, you can choose to accept that (or find ways to deal with the fear). If leaving would violate your values, then at least you know that. You’re making a conscious choice, and no one can tell you you’re wrong – because no one else shares your beliefs, values and experiences.
Is leaving the best solution?
Sometimes, even when leaving doesn’t violate your values – and you desperately want to – that’s not what’s best for you. A divorce could leave you without enough money for basic expenses. Avoiding someone at the office could quickly turn into a political nightmare. Refusing to have anything to do with your mother-in-law could hurt your marriage.
It’s important to consider the practicalities of your decision. What can you do to earn more money, so that you can afford a divorce in the future? How can you handle the office politics? Can you and your spouse agree on some ways to manage your mother-in-law?
It’s never easy!
If you’ve ever had to end a relationship, you know it’s not an easy decision. But if you ask yourself the right questions, you can figure out what’s right for you. And then, if you need to walk away from someone, you won’t have to wonder whether you did the right things.