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Staying in Relationships for Too Long? Here's How to Stop

It's wise to pressure-test your relationship from time to time.

Key points

  • Staying in the wrong relationship for too long can end up wasting time and keeping you from finding the right relationship.
  • When you encounter a relationship deal-breaker, your heart may know what your head still tries to explain away. Listen to your heart.
  • Make it clear early on what your relationship deal-breakers are. Confront such deal-breakers as soon as possible. Assess the response.
  • When you realize that you can work out issues in an open and mature manner, your relationship can get stronger, making you feel even safer. 
Source: Photo by Vera Arsic from Pexels.
Staying in the wrong relationship for too long can mean less time and fewer opportunities for the right relationship.
Source: Photo by Vera Arsic from Pexels.

I still remember the day when I realized that I couldn't marry Willnot Stickupforme. That, of course, was not her real name. But it epitomized the reason why my heart had decided at the time that she was not The One. That day I was relaying to her once again how her family member wasn't being fair to me. Willnot did, in fact, agree that her family member was being unfair. My expectation then was that Willnot would finally talk to her family member and vigorously defend me. But instead, she responded that this person was her family member and therefore she couldn't do anything about it. In my mind, that "couldn't" was actually a "wouldn't" and a deal-breaker for me.

So what did I do with this realization? Did I take decisive action? Well, if decisive action meant dating her for another couple of years, then, yes, I did take decisive action. That wasn't my proudest moment and, unfortunately, something that I have ended up repeating multiple times with different relationships. In my younger years, I would let relationships that weren't working for me go on—-or more like drag on—for way too long. Way past their Discard By dates. Each time, it wasn't as if I had planned it that way and at some point said, "I can't deal with that. I am going to let this relationship fall apart in one, two, or maybe three years from now." Yeah, I didn't consciously tell myself that I would stay in relationships that weren't going anywhere as long as possible so that I would have less time to spend with someone I truly wanted.

What happened each time was that my head explained away what my heart had already known. In the case of Willnot, my head told me that maybe it's really hard for her to confront her family member. Maybe, she was too conflict-averse to do so. Maybe, she was just too darn nice to do such a thing. Maybe, she was quietly working herself up to finally say something to her family member one day. At the time, you could "Call Me Maybe," because my mind was making a whole lot of excuses for her. I tried not to take her refusal too personally and instead focused on all of her good qualities. And, yes, she did have a lot of good qualities.

Source: Photo by Nathan McBride from Unsplash.
Your heart may know what your head doesn't fully accept yet.
Source: Photo by Nathan McBride from Unsplash.

But my heart knew better. This was another of several deal-breakers that had accumulated during that relationship. She had already expressed interest in getting married, effectively telling me that I was The One. But the one thing I couldn't do was pull the trigger and propose. These other deal-breakers had kept me from doing so. And when Willnot would not confront her family member, that was the proverbial nail in the relationship coffin. My heart had made up its mind about her. You know that song, "You've Lost that Loving Feeling?" That's what essentially happened that day.

However, rather than fully confront her about the issue and make it clear that her refusal to confront her family member was the final deal-breaker, I let things slide. And slide. And slide. At the same time, I unconsciously made less and less effort toward the relationship. Unbeknownst to her, she became less and less a priority for me. Unbeknownst to me, my heart basically said, "If you are not going to prioritize me enough to do something about your family member, why should I prioritize you?" This manifested itself in many different subtle (or not-so-subtle, depending on your point of view) ways. For example, I grew a lot less intimate with her. Whenever she wanted to get even more romantic, so to speak, you could adapt that line from the movie Bring It On and say, "Brr! It's cold in here. There must be some resentment in the atmosphere."

But all along, my head kept explaining things away, like telling myself that it was natural to become less intimate as a relationship matured. After all, how many married couples are really having sex that regularly? This made no bleeping sense, though, especially since I couldn't really envision myself marrying her. It's not like we were a couple with 10 kids and not enough time to do you-know-what anymore.

Speaking of maturing, this certainly wasn't the mature way for me to handle the situation. It dragged out the relationship and ended up wasting time for both of us. Eventually, she noticed my lack of effort, grew resentful as well, and kind of got involved with someone else before our relationship formally ended at an inopportune time. Yeah, the whole thing turned out to be quite a mess.

Source: Photo by Yan Krukau from Pexels.
Confronting the issues in your relationship can end up making the relationship stronger.
Source: Photo by Yan Krukau from Pexels.

What I should have done was make it clear early on what were deal-breakers for me. As soon as it was clear that she wouldn't confront her family member, I should have insisted that if things didn't change quickly, we should go our separate ways. This may not have been a deal-breaker for others, but it was for me. Looking back at that and other relationships has made me realize that avoiding confrontation for the sake of harmony is not necessarily a good thing.

Instead, it's good to pressure-test your relationship every now and then. This doesn't mean putting your significant other in a wind tunnel. Rather, it means, as soon as you can, really pushing on where some potentially problematic deal-breaking issues may exist and determining whether they can be worked out or whether you should go your separate ways. When you do this, your relationship could go in one of two directions. It could fall apart because deal-breakers are, after all, deal-breakers. Or it could actually get much stronger. When you realize that you can work out issues (and every relationship has its issues) in an open and mature manner, you can end up feeling even safer in that relationship.

This applies to all kinds of relationships, including friendships and work-related relationships. I've stayed in the latter types of relationships for way too long as well. This has included putting up with what I considered bad behavior, simply out of loyalty or for potential professional opportunities. It never ended up being worth it. When you put up with a relationship that's not working for you, you have much less time and fewer opportunities for the right relationships in life. At the same time, you don't honor that most important relationship within yourself, the relationship between your head and your heart.

More from Bruce Y. Lee M.D., M.B.A.
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