How to Leave a Long-Term Relationship

December 1, 2018

Leaving a relationship is never easy even, if there is relief on the other side of the process. But obviously leaving a short-term relationship is different from a long-term one: With more investment in time and intimacy, the tangling of lives of these relationships makes the untangling more difficult. And when there are kids or money or the literal breaking up on a household as part of the mix, it’s made all the harder.

Here are some guidelines to hopefully make the emotional untangling less painful:

Be clear about your message

Sometimes your leaving is not a surprise: It’s been talked about for months; or no, it’s one you’ve been privately gnawing on. Whether or not there’s advance warning, unless the ending is truly mutual (and few are), your announcement will be a shock to the other, and set off a grief reaction. Likely his first question is: Why?

You want to work out your explanation to this question carefully in advance. Ideally talk more about you and your feelings, rather than about the other and his behavior. You don’t want to be angry, you don’t want to be blaming. Instead you want to calm as you can, be clear, giving a reason that you can state in one or two sentences.

The danger here is that your message is not clear. If you offer vague or contradictory reasons, the person is likely to be confused, or will instinctively look for cracks in your argument to push on, or will read into your message what he wants to hear. Similarly, if you pile on too much information while the other person is understandably in shell-shock, he will either get overloaded and not be able to process what you are saying, or will again hear what he wants to hear rather than what you are intending to say.

Be clear about your bottom line

This is the answer to the other person’s likely next questions: What does this mean, where do we go from here, what are the next steps? Again, you emotionally want to sort this out in your own mind ahead of time: You want a divorce; you want a separation so you have time to sort out your feelings. Be honest and clear even if your clarity right then is that you are not completely sure. But if you feel you are sure, don’t be cruel but don’t mince words or beat around the bush.

Like your why-message, if you are vague in order to avoid hurting the other person’s feelings, you are only giving hope where there is none, or leaving the other person confused and tempted to hear what she wants to hear rather than what you are saying.

Be clear about rules of engagement

This is the second part of what happens next. Are we going to see or talk to each other — when, how often? If children are involved, are we still going to do things as a family — when, how? By being clear about you want, about what you are willing to do and not do, it not only allows you to get what you want on the table, but by your clarity helps the other person become clearer herself.

Start with your own ideal vision of next steps, and decide on your bottom lines — what you absolutely are or are not willing to do, what you are willing to negotiate and compromise on — so you don’t get emotionally pulled into doing something that you don’t want to do.

Control contact

Sometimes the other person copes by pulling in and cutting you off for a period of time. But more likely you will be barraged with texts or calls or emails in an attempt to change your mind, to get more information, to see you and talk, to draw you in. Under such a constant message assault, it’s easy for you to quickly feel frustrated, annoyed, overwhelmed. To avoid this, be proactive rather than reactive. Define your own policy on communication, set boundaries — that, for example, you won’t respond to text messages, or will only talk on the phone at certain times.

And you want to follow through on what you say. If you don’t, if you are inconsistent, the danger is that you create intermittent reinforcement. If you say, for example, that you’re not going to respond to texts, but then suddenly do because you’re lonely or feeling regretful, the other person will read into this, thinking that you’ve possibly changed your mind, that what he said tugged at you in some way. This only stirs up hope, or encourages the other person to reach out in the same way again and again. To avoid this, it’s usually better to define a contact policy for yourself that you can follow.

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