As an intimate relationship begins to falter, its partners often struggle with the painful spiral of love’s descent into score-keeping, with each blaming the other for the failure of the relationship. Even if they once believed in a forever future together, the partners can’t seem to remember who they once were as a couple. They have lost their way, their purpose, and their commitment.
People have often asked me after the relationship is over when they should have actually left it. Exempting betrayal or abuse, I always give them the same answer:
“When you no longer like who you have become in this relationship.”
I have been a relationship therapist for nearly five decades and have worked with hundreds of damaged and faltering relationships. Sadly, by the time most couples come to me, they are often burdened with layers of unproductive and unresolved issues. Unattended, they have morphed into hardened layers of self-protection at the price of the other or have sacrificed to the point of self-extinction.
At that point in the relationship, too few can return to their initial hope and faith in themselves and in the relationship, especially if the erosion has happened over a long period of time. And despite what they say they want, they cannot let go of what they have felt was stolen from them by the other.
It is often only after the breakup that a partner can use the therapeutic environment to heal effectively. Without being exposed to the decay of a dying relationship, they can finally focus on exploring what they have learned and who they became during the downward spiral. They finally understand that If they continue to blame the other partner for the relationship’s demise, they are dooming themselves to repeat what they’ve done in the next relationship.
Their greatest hope for a more successful relationship in the future is to learn from the past and carry that liberation into the future. Blaming the other, even when it feels totally warranted, is a way of giving power away. Self-accountability is the only trustable way to take that power back.
The Way Forward
The first goal, then, of this overdue personal therapeutic search is to realize what they have done that caused them to lose self-respect and to sell out their own integrity to keep the relationship together. It is the first step to regain the qualities they admired and respected in themselves before they sacrificed them.
The second goal is to use that exploration to become a more robust and healthier relationship partner who won’t do that again. From what they are now learning, they become more confident in what they have to offer, what they need to change, and what kind of partner they need to create a successful relationship. They realize that self-blackmail to please another or avoid loss will eventually result in the relationship failing over time.
There are seven questions a person must be able to fully answer to free themselves from the chains of self-deception that turned them into someone they never wanted to become.
1. What parts of me was I proud of when I entered into this relationship that I sacrificed to stay in it?
Successful relationships don’t always last, but the partners within them emerge better than they were when they began that partnership. If you liked who you were more when you entered the relationship than when it failed, you did not honor your essence and doomed yourself to eventual failure. That decision was crucial in predicting that the relationship would ultimately fail.
A successful relationship is a partnership of two authentic and self-respecting people who would never want the other to sacrifice integrity to keep the relationship going.
2. What parts of me that I respected and honored did I give up?
Every relationship requires compromise to work. Puzzle pieces don’t automatically fit; some can be altered, but some must be left aside. It is crucial that you never give up the parts of you that are your core values, your means of self-respect, or what feels like your deepest authenticity. Ask yourself in what ways you may have failed that self-honoring.
3. Why was I willing to risk my own integrity to stay in the relationship?
Every person struggles with the balance between faithfulness to one’s integrity and compromising that commitment to hold on to an attachment they cannot bear to lose. It is a risky balance, and once thrown off in the direction of self-sacrifice and selling out, it will ultimately end the relationship or destroy the person making those decisions.
4. Have I behaved in this way in other relationships?
In your relationship history, have you consistently ended up liking yourself less at the end of a relationship than you did before? Those self-sacrifices accumulate and destroy self-confidence. Parts of you may still be in the relationship, but your self-respect is gone.
5. What have I learned that I do not want ever to repeat again?
This is the most crucial promise you must make to yourself. If you do not make those changes, the past will define the future forever.
6. Who do I want to be in my next relationship?
Make a list of everything you have loved and admired about yourself that will form the base of who you want to become. Your next relationship will be the vehicle to test your resolve to stay a person you respect rather than killing those parts of yourself just to stay in a relationship.
7. How can I make sure I hold on to that me that I will not surrender, no matter what?
Every time you sell out, you are selling out the child within yourself who relies on the adult in you for protection and guidance. If you do not make that connection your highest priority, your will and resolve will disappear in the face of giving in to the demands of someone who does not have loyalty to your core values.