How to Know When to End a Relationship: 5 things to consider first

New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings

-Lao Tzu

Japanese organizing consultant turned Netflix star, Marie Kondo, offers sound advice to her clients who struggle with saying goodbye to things in their home they once loved.  In her ‘Clearing out your Closet’ episode, she encourages people to take each item of clothing, hold it to their hearts, close their eyes and then see how it makes them feel. Then she says, “ if it brings you joy, keep it, if it doesn’t thank it”.

Saying goodbye to someone we love is never easy, and it’s certainly much harder than saying goodbye to an item of clothing or “thing” we love or once loved. 

Knowing when and how to do that is just as challenging, if not hopelessly confusing at times.

To make matters worse, we as human beings are wired for bonding, not for breaking up

Why is that?

Because, once upon a time, we lived in small tribes, had a small selection of potential partners to mate with, often died around the age of forty, and if we didn’t, we then became the wise elders of our tribe who helped guide and advise the younger members and then died a few years after that.  Our evolutionary biological “mating wiring”, hasn’t caught up with the relationship dilemmas of modern love; one of which is, “should I stay or should I go?”

There are some people who are  fortunate enough to find their life mates at a young age, and successfully negotiate that relationship through them many changes and challenges of life, in sickness and in health, until “death do they part”. 

Most people however, will experience having two to three significant partners who “make sense” for different phases of their lives, during their brief, transitory and mysterious trip around the sun.

It means that ending a relationship or having someone else end it, is pretty much inevitable, as is the pain that accompanies the ending. Still, it begs the questions: how do you know if ending something is the right thing to do? Shouldn’t you at least try to repair it before you end it? 

While the latter is generally a wise choice to make first; repairing and renewing doesn’t always happen.

And if you are on the fence about repairing things before you make the decision to say good bye or trade in, here’s a few questions you can ask and answer for yourself  first, to help you make that decision.

1.     Think back to when you met this person. What part of you chose that person and what phase of life were you in? What were you looking for and what did you want to experience? E.G. sometimes people choose a partner because they are looking to start a family. Sometimes people fall in love. Sometimes people feel the pressure of social clocks and think that settling down is “the right thing to do”. Sometimes people are lonely and looking for companionship. Whatever the reason for your choice, know that there is no right or wrong reason for choosing someone, there’s just YOUR reason.

2.    Reflect on the course of your relationship. When did things start to change? What role did you play in that change?Remember: wherever you go, there you are; meaning that unconscious relational patterns will repeat if they are not tended to properly. Answering this question for yourself is crucial for your well-being, regardless of what you choose.

3.    If you could “rewind the tape” so to speak, and change some things you did or said, what would those things be?What do you imagine the outcome would have been if you could go back in time and get a redo? Take some time to imagine this and get a felt sense of “what could have been…and… if only you had done…” and see what insights come. Also, to help with any potential analysis paralysis with this line of questioning, see if your brilliant analytical brain can step back for a bit, while you explore your intuitive self.

4.    After taking your time to do step three (and rinse and repeat that step as many times as you need), ask yourself, what is it that you want now? Does your current relationship feel like you are spending time with a synergistic soulmate and or pragmatic partner with whom you have a shared vision for the future?  Do you both want the same things? Will possibly having different visions of the future work for you?

5.    Now, follow Marie Kondo’s advice, and honestly ask and answer whether or not your current relationship brings you joy. If it does, then keep it, knowing there is no such thing as perfect. If it doesn’t and you know that you have done your best; whatever that is to you, then thank that person. Tell them how much they have meant to you, and how they’ve touched your heart. Tell them how you’ve grown because of them, and how you know that you must do the next part of your life without them. 

Then wish them well and say goodbye. Consider giving them a small gift, perhaps a card or symbolic object, so they will have something of you to hold onto as the two of you transition into a new phase of life without each other. And though you will feel sad while this chapter in your life’s story begins to end, in time, a new chapter in your life’s story will start its first outline, first sentence, and first paragraph. And you, the author of your story, get to hold the pen to paper, while you create and then possibly start to co-create, a new story in your book of love and life.


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Disfunction Wrapped in a Sentimental Bow: How to Recognize the Many Faces of Manipulation.

“Don’t fear the reaper.  You’ll be able to fly"-Blue Oyster Cult



There’s a story that has been circulating on Facebook for a few years now.  The headline reads “He told her he was leaving and  she asked him for just one thing.”  The story goes on to say something like (and this is paraphrased) “ Mary and John have been married for 20 years.  They have a 15 year old son. John fell in love with another woman, named Janet and asked Mary for a divorce.”  Mary said, “Ok I will grant  you that wish provided you do one thing for me.  For the next thirty days, I would like you to carry me down the stairs and through the door like you did when we were first married.”  John agreed.

 The first few days of this exercise felt awkward to him.  He began to notice that she had lost some weight and seemed frail.  By the fourth week, the feelings of love he once had for his wife came back to him and he ran over  to see Janet to tell her that he did still love his wife and no longer wanted a divorce.  He then ran back home to his wife Mary, only to find her dead in their bed.  Unbeknownst to him, Mary was dying of cancer  The author of the story claims that Mary kept her terminal illness  a secret  to both protect her family from the pain of knowing she was dying and her son from the scar of a divorce.

 After Mary dies, John weeps with regret and everyone else weeps for her loss.”

 There’s a lot that can be said about this story.  

It is a bit of a tear jerker upon first read. Yet, let’s try to ask and answer the following question before we break out the kleenex. Is the author of this story trying to recapture the fairytale Mary once had with her husband John 20 some odd years ago or expressing a sentimentally gift wrapped revenge fantasy because John chose to leave?   For arguments sake and good dialectics, let’s say it’s both and start with the fairytale.

 Fairytales and myths predominate our culture and with good reason. They are both poignant and fun.   Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Santa Clause, fill our imaginations with adventure, hope, fear, love and in some cases, can offer us guidance on how to live our lives.  The story of Santa Claus may be perhaps one of the best fables for couples who want to understand the secret for a successful relationships .

 Why might that be, you ask?

Parents who are attuned to their children’s needs, delight in surprising them with gifts.  Couples who are attuned with each other delight in doing the same.  And though not everyone celebrates Christmas, the theme is universal. Healthy happy couples choose to make the fairy tale real once the honeymoon phase ends. When there are mis attunements between them, they see that as an opportunity to get curious and turn the inevitable empathic failures into a deeper connection. This is how they make Santa real, time and time again.  This is how they create and recreate the magic, even when the demands of work, family and life take over.  Though there’s never a 100% guarantee that making it and keeping it real will last till death do us part, it is the best strategy for getting their, if that’s what both parties want and continue to want.


What I most wonder about in the story of Mary and John is their capacity to reinvent themselves after the fairy tale ended?

Were they able to walk down the stairs hand in hand and through the door together as equals and carry each other at different times when needed?  The author doesn’t say. As a psychotherapist, I am going to venture out and say, probably not and they are also not alone in that matter. What we do know from the story is that he found someone else and she is dying and doesn’t tell him.  We also know that she wants to relive some elements of the fairytale with him before she passes.  Who could blame her? Yet the specific tactics the author endows Mary with to help her get what she wants disempowers her. I can’t help but wonder if those same tactics took place in the marriage, reflecting part of the reason their marriage fell apart?

The first tactic is guilt.  

Guilt is a powerful motivator, one that can never be underestimated.  She guilts John into carrying her down the stairs each day because he’s leaving her. He did love her once and probably feels bad for hurting her by asking her for a divorce.


The second tactic is manipulation via secrecy.  

Perhaps there was something noble about keeping her illness a secret to  protect her family from the pain of her impending death and her son from the scar of a divorce.   On the flip side, this choice was really rather cruel. Most families would want to know this  so they could prepare for the loss. It is also arguable that Mary had darker motives, choosing to seduce John through guilt and manipulation only to then abandon him with her death.  The proverb “revenge is dish best served cold” might be applicable here. 

Wouldn’t it have been nice if the author endowed both Mary and John with courage?

What if we changed the ending to  have Mary say the following when John tells her he wants to leave? “John, I know we lost our way, and I don’t really know why.  I do know that we are both responsible for it and that we never talked about our growing distance.  I regret that and I hope you do too.  I am dying. What I would really like from you is to be here for me during my final days. Do you think you could do that for me?”

 Feel the difference?

 This would allow them to end their marriage with love. And while I can appreciate that many would like to change the story entirely to have Mary and John stay together and work things out, the author did not write that story.

Endings are sad.  But they are not always bad.  

The longing and ache one feels in their soul to live an authentic life is just as powerful a motivator as guilt, though guilt can actually feel more authentic to some. In my clinical practice, I often see people who are polarized between the two. “Should I stay or should I go?”,  becomes the focus in therapy until this polarization dissolves. If one has the bravery ,will and inner hope to get to the heart of the matter, then it will.


There’s a lyric from the Semisonic song “Closing time” that says: “every new beginning starts from some other beginning’s end.  Yet I prefer the Blue Oyster Cult to close out this story to honor both the phenomena of endings and the gift of disillusionment.


Don’t fear the reaper. You’ll be able to fly.


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