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When to Leave

“There are times when the actual experience of leaving something makes you wish desperately that you could stay, and then there are times when the leaving reminds you a hundred times over why exactly you had to leave in the first place.”  -Shauna Niequist


Leaving is bittersweet. Knowing when to leave is not always a simple equation. Even the departing itself  is rarely an experience of simple relief; generally, it is weighted by what is lost, even if the loss is only lives in our imaginings of what was possible. Often when we leave, we lose not only our hopes for the relationship that has ended, but more deeply, for our concept of a future that defined us. I grew up  amidst a long series of leaving and being left. I imagine that this has a lot to do with why I am now usually the last one to leave, hanging onto any vestige of hope that things can turn around. Being left so often as a child is qualitatively different than choosing to leave, and creates odd associations to most endings.  Your history of relationship endings is the foundation of your tendency toward leaving or staying.

Early in my marriage, I used to threaten leaving and divorce a lot as that was what I grew up watching. Finally, one day, my husband shouted back, “There’s the door. Either go or stop saying you are going to.” Our words are powerful, and threats of leaving take root deep in a relationship in ways that I didn’t understand.  They create the proverbial one-foot-out-the-door syndrome, where no one is really all in and the relationship is essentially stuck in a no-mans land of existing without intention. I am grateful that we had the wisdom to move beyond this stage of our marriage and have focused most of our energy since on learning how to stay.

Recently though, in some business relationships, I have come to a new admiration for the skills of identifying and having the courage to leave toxic relationships. The truth is that you can get lost in trying so hard to make it work that you can’t see the truth of the damage being done. Discerning the difference between truly unhealthy relationships and general fatigue over relationship work is not always easy. Our own unfinished personal issues can cloud our judgment about our partner. If we are not really doing our own work to learn to receive love, it can come off looking like there isn’t any coming at us.

But there are also some indisputable signs that a relationship is too toxic to merit any more of your efforts. Your body is a true barometer for your relationships, so start by listening to what it is telling you. If the idea of interacting in your relationship brings you consistent dread because you leave every encounter feeling disrespected, undermined or belittled, consider this a legitimate red flag. All healthy relationship containers encourages the best in you. If your relationship consistently makes you feel worse about yourself, there is nothing to be gained.

Sometimes relationships don’t work for other reasons that are not emotional dynamite but are dead ends just the same. If two people don’t have some shared vision for their future, you both end up biding time, and usually one person has to overcompensate for the drag of the other. The red flag that waves in this scenario  is that one partner in the relationship consistently refuses to take responsibility for their own mess.

Finally, and perhaps the most difficult to recognize, is when a relationship is not trustworthy. Often this ends up looking like one partner refusing to give the other partner the benefit of the doubt. Essentially, the relationship is held hostage to forgiveness being withheld. Remember forgiveness sets the forgiver free perhaps even more than the person who transgressed. Any relationship without it is inherently untrustworthy and both people look for ways to hide. Not surprisingly, this degenerates into creating more to hide. Relationships are fluid bodies, and if they are forced to stagnate in the pain of the past, they generate their reality from that space.

My business relationship that I am now walking away from has all of these characteristics. Finally, I am glad that I am not staying. I celebrate the freedom of leaving toxic relationships and have great compassion for all those who had the courage and insight to leave before me. Bringing wisdom to leaving is actually another way of learning to stay with yourself.