Letting Go of Bad Relationships

You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don't need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free

Hop on the bus, Gus
You don't need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free

-- Paul Simon, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (1975)

Ahhh, but were it that easy!

The chorus, with its alternating rhythm anchor, to Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is one of those instantly recognizable hooks that spark memories and associations long after you first heard it. I was 10 when the song was released (Althea would like me to point out here that she was much younger) and for many months it was ubiquitous on pop radio.

Although contemplating the many ways to discard lovers who’d overstayed their welcome was quite beyond the list of concerns my 10-year-old mind burdened itself with, I did pay attention to the song and discerned it was not really about leaving the troublesome lovers but much more the emotional roadblocks and pain that go hand-in-hand with the leaving. Breaking away from dysfunctional relationships is hard and some people will fight tooth and nail to salvage disintegrating relationships, even when disintegration is objectively desirable. It’s often crystal clear to cops, counselors and the people closest to those embroiled in the dysfunction that it’s the best solution. These are the calls and sessions and “heart-to-hearts” that take up an inordinate amount of time and emotional energy. Even cops and counselors and those who get entangled in the dramas of family and friends, whom you’d think should know better, can just as easily find themselves so embroiled in their personal lives speaks to how hard it really is to “get yourself free.”

Saving a Relationship Isn’t Always the Goal
When we write or teach about relationship issues our focus is usually on improving not-quite-solid-enough bonds, strengthening good-but-with-room-to-grow partnerships, salvaging foundering relationships or reconciling lost connections. We continue to believe in all that -- and we’ll get there soon in this series -- but there are times that the wisest strategy in a relationship is to let go, declare defeat and move on. 

As we discussed in last month’s column, Toxic People, Toxic Relationships, when we looked at how and why some of us sometimes become entangled in hopelessly damaging or dangerous relationships, the threats to our emotional and sometimes physical health posed by these poisonous bonds are significant. Some people drain us emotionally, mentally, physically or financially with no end in sight and no amount of trying to fix the problem offering relief. Others bring out our worst selves, undermining our maturity and good sense. Sometimes the wisest goal isn’t saving a relationship but letting it go.

Whether the one you may need to leave behind is a spouse or lover, family member or friend, or perhaps even your very own child, doing so can be excruciating. We know this. We know that, when weighing the prospect of leaving behind someone you may truly love or feel intimately connected to is on the table, being absolutely sure is necessary. Knowing when it’s time to cease heroic measures and say goodbye is critical. 

That’s what this article is about.

But First Things First: Is it Maybe You?
If you find yourself in one of these toxic, destructive relationships and decide you may need to break clean of it, there’s one serious question you should first answer: Is the problem maybe me?

If the relationship you are considering leaving behind is a significant one -- a serious romantic tie or maybe even your spouse, a close family member or a longtime friendship -- there are serious, wrenching implications for you and them. It’s only fair you first examine what your role in the dysfunction might be; after all, it does little good to walk away from someone you love, holding them responsible for the failure of the relationship, if ultimately you’re going to fall into the same problems with someone else because the common denominator in the relational dysfunction is you.

Answering the question “is it maybe me?” requires serious, even brutal, self-examination (and possibly the help of a professional) but is necessary before making a life-changing decision or turning your back on someone important to you.

Recognizing the Signs of Trouble
Althea has come up with Relationship Red Flags she uses to counsel clients in her office, or when together we teach relationship skills to others, that signal the possibility a bond may need to be broken. It’s important to understand that, in most (but not all) of these cases, the existence of the red flag doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship must or should end. Problems can often be fixed and relationships made healthy. But if attempts to fix the problems are repeatedly rebuffed or the other person refuses to see the problem (or sees it and still refuses to change), the issues are pervasive and unceasing, or their consequences routinely bleed into and damage other areas of your life with little or no hope for change, then it may be time to call it quits.

The red flags are:

Verbal, physical or emotional abusiveness: Cops hear stories of abusive relationships all the time, know the signs, counsel the participant and, yet, may find themselves in just such a relationship with someone they care about. People play out their baggage on the one they love in often cruel ways -- we get that -- but it’s never acceptable.

No relationship can succeed unless all involved feel safe within it. Abusiveness destroys safety. When it’s clear the abuse is to be a permanent part of the relationship, it’s definitely time to get free of it.

Repeatedly violating your requests, limits and boundaries: Someone who consistently violates reasonable requests you make or the personal boundaries you try to establish, is telling you clearly that what you want simply doesn’t matter. When you’ve asked, and asked again, and explained your case ad nauseum with no change whatsoever, and resorted to begging, well, you get the picture. These people are bullies -- what they do is a form of abuse -- and their goal is to force your submission to their will and ways. How far are you going to let it go before you say, “No more”?

Dishonesty/Lying: Trust is truly the cornerstone of a healthy relationship and when that trust is violated intimacy suffers. When the trust is repeatedly violated, the safety of the bond is compromised. And when dishonesty becomes a hallmark of your relationship, what hope does it really have?

Clinginess/Neediness: Most cops are natural rescuers. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, in itself, and the drive to protect the less strong is inherent in most of us and serves a valuable purpose. There are dangers, though. One of them is being susceptible to needy, clingy people.

Being so important to another person can be an intoxicating feeling -- “I truly AM a hero!!” -- but it takes a tremendous emotional toll over time, especially if their neediness is pathological (i.e., they have a psychological need to be rescued over and over again or a fear of abandonment) and there’s no end to the crises you’ll be forever called to vanquish or fears to allay. 

And be wary of people with few or no other friends, becoming someone’s sole social outlet becomes draining. Besides, there may be a very good reason they have few friends.

Teasing, ridiculing, taunting or badmouthing others: It’s one thing to good-naturedly tease someone, or to have a sense of humor about life, but quite another to do it with the intent to hurt or diminish someone else or elevate their own status or ego at the expense of another’s reputation.

Do all the talking and none of the listening: Is your relationship all about them? Do you find yourself focusing on their problems, their worries, their interests, their ideas and their world without ever allowing the focus to fall on you? Healthy relationships cannot sustain that level of one-sidedness for long. There are certain professionals, like Althea, who charge high hourly rates to put the focus solely on their clients’ needs. Intimacy and friendship require reciprocity.

Always looking for a favor: This should be especially concerning for those in law enforcement. Some people selfishly see relationships with others as means to an end -- “What tangible benefit or reward can I get out of this?” -- instead of mutually beneficial and their own reward. Police officers need to guard against those who would befriend (and potentially use) them only for their position.

Favor seekers unreservedly seek free advice, the use of influence or access to your personal belongings they’re too cheap to buy or rent themselves. Nothing wrong with that occasionally, but with some it quickly becomes obvious you are only as good to them as what they can get from you.

Of course, with any of the red flags above it’s important to try and change behavior first but, if your attempts are met with refusals or hostility, it may be time to reevaluate the relationship. Walking away from someone you care about or love hurts, but sometimes staying in the relationship hurts more.

In our next and final article in this series on relationships, we will look at the steps of reconciling damaged and broken relationships in order to fix those that can be fixed, as well as some steps to safeguard already solid relationships.


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