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How to Leave a Long-Term Relationship

Endings are always painful—here's how to make them less so.

Key points

  • Ending a relationship becomes more difficult with more investment in time and intimacy.
  • To make the untangling less painful, be clear about your message and your bottom line.
  • Be sure to have a plan for your worst-case scenarios.
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

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 of 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 party and set off a grief reaction. Likely their 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 their behavior. You don’t want to be angry, you don’t want to be blaming. Instead, you want to be as calm as you can, be clear, give 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 they want to hear. Similarly, if you pile on too much information while the other person is understandably in shell-shock, they will either get overloaded and not be able to process what you are saying, or will again hear what they want 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; or 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 they want to hear rather than what you are saying.

Be clear about the 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 too.

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, for example, you say 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 they 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.

Hold steady, but be compassionate.

You want to be calm, clear, and consistent, but that doesn’t mean you want to be insensitive. Hold to your bottom lines and message, but also acknowledge the pain that you have created and what the other person is feeling. You don’t generally have to do anything more than say, "I know this is difficult for you, that you would like this to all be different and change, and I’m sorry this is so painful for you." The acknowledgment itself can be soothing to the other. By showing empathy, while taking responsibility for your actions and staying clear and firm, you are compassionately affirming the reality of the situation.

Have a plan for your worst-case scenarios.

Even with all your clarity and firmness, your anxiety is apt to stir up all kinds of worst-case scenarios: What if he does_____? She does_____? This can create dread that keeps you awake at night.

Put these to rest by mapping out a game plan for each of these worst-case situations. Figure out, for example, what you can or want to do if they won’t allow you to see the kids, were to show up at your work, or if they were to bad-mouth you to your friends or family. You may need to do some research about what are appropriate options or next steps; you may want to consult an attorney. What you don’t want is to do nothing, to have no plan. This will only keep you in a state of dread and make you feel like a victim of the other person’s possible actions and reactions.

Talk to the children.

Ideally, you both want to sit down with the kids and let them know in a calm way what is unfolding. If that is not possible, do the best you can on your own. You'll want to give the kids a few days' notice to any moving out; this gives them time to process what you are saying and space to ask follow-up questions. If you stretch out the leaving-time too long, young children will think it isn't going to happen; older children will be anxious the entire time, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

What to say to the children? Obviously, whatever you say will trigger their own grief that they will have to work through with time. But because their worlds are smaller and more concrete, what children usually need to know about most is what will change in my world now that you are not together. Map out as much as know in detail — that yes, they will be staying at the same school, that they will spend the weekend with the dad, etc.

Avoid giving them adult details of your adult problems. Say that this is not their fault, that these are adult problems and adult decisions. And although things are changing, that yes, this is going to be hard for a while, but you are on top of it, ready and able to both care for them and help them through it. Let them know that they are not responsible for fixing the family, that they don't need to worry or take care of you or the other parent.

Work up lines.

Family, friends, and co-workers are naturally going to be asking you what happened. Decide in advance to whom and what you want to share. For those outside your intimate circle, work up some lines so you are not sidewinded at an office party with questions and trying to think on your feet.

Consider counseling.

A counseling setting, with a mental health professional or a minister, can provide a safe place to untangle, to have deeper conversations about the relationship, to make sure that your messages are heard by the other person, to get advice about managing children, etc.

That said, be clear with the other person what you see to be the focus and purpose of the counseling before you sit down in a session — for example, not to work on the relationship, but to have a safe place to be clear about what is unfolding and why; or a place to figure out how to best support the children; or to have a place to check in on how the separation is going and/or the current state of the relationship.

Expect your feelings to change.

Even if your messages and bottom lines are clear, expect that you, too, will be on an emotional rollercoaster for a while, because you, too, are grieving. Even if the relationship was terrible, grief still sets in, because the grief is a natural element of the untangling and ending process, because it is still a loss that you need to resolve. So, expect to experience waves of second-thoughts, regrets, and loneliness. This is normal.

Get support.

This is a major transition point in your life, one that is difficult to do all alone. Before stepping out the door, line up in advance people you feel comfortable turning to for support. And if, for whatever reason, you lack these supports, consider individual counseling to help you move through this time.

There's no way to avoid the stress that these changes will create, but your overarching goal is to be clear, consistent, and as calm and compassionate as you can.

It’s the best you can do.

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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