How to know when a couple should break up or stay together…
-especially if you’re in one?
The conclusion to break-up can be an honest, heart-felt assessment made from a calm, loving place OR it can erupt from a myopic, triggered frustration based on intense pain, jealousy or anger. All too often it’s the latter. I lament so many individuals end their relationships from a contracted place of blame, shame & disconnect, instead of a kind, open-hearted discussion about moving in different directions.
A break up can mean one individual no longer sees how the emotional, physical, financial & opportunity costs of making the relationship work outweigh the advantage to their aliveness & development. People are drawn to each other for specific (often unconscious) reasons, either to develop a skill, learn something new or heal a wound. Whatever benefit drew them towards that relationship may now be satisfied and the current dynamic no longer optimizes their growth.
Never Break-up During a Fight
Anger can blind us to all sorts of information. Break-ups made during fights are simply untrustable. They erode the self-esteem of both parties. The heart-breaker feels heavy & shameful for causing pain and the heart-broken believes they weren’t good enough. After spending so much time caring and contributing to each other, it’s a tragedy to see partners become enemies.
In our first year of falling in love, my husband and I had a “30-day rule”. No matter how angry, frustrated, betrayed or upset either of us felt, we agreed to put on-hold the possibility of breakup for 30-days. If, after a month of deep consideration, the decision to separate still felt real and appropriate, we’d move towards that transition lovingly. We even went so far as to write little notes to our future selves, expressing how committed we were to making this work, then gave those notes to our partner to hold. They were to be handed back if one of us found our self in a desperate “I’m-about-to-give-up-on-us” moment. It’s hard to threaten the relationship when your mate pulls out an earnest love note written in sober mind, committing to stay through heaven & hell, signed with your name at the bottom.
I believe all relationships are a form of ‘schooling’ and their highest objective (beyond mating) is education. Once you get your degree at university you never claim “it was a failure” because it’s over. Any relationship from which we learned a lot, regardless of whether we’re still with that person or not, was a grand success.
So why do we break-up from rage, demonize our ex’s, and trash-talk the relationship in our own minds in order to move on?
Because we’re attempting to avoid pain. It’s way easier to let go of something that sucks than something that was beautiful, poetic but no longer nourishing. Instead of actually diving inside & feeling the pain, exploring what it has to teach us, we do a romantic version of “sour-grapes”.
For those of you with past romances still ‘bleeding’ from open wounds, know this: how you leave your last relationship deeply impacts your ability to succeed in the next.
Incomplete or dirty break-ups haunt you forever. Learning to break-up with consciousness, grace, and the knowing that some part of you will always love some part of them is a sacred art form. Any break-up you cannot proudly sign your name to, silently eats away at your romantic confidence. Counter-intuitively, it lowers the caliber of partner you attract in the future. Which is why I help my clients break-up with the kind of tenderness that characterized the most poignant moments of their relationship. In other words, to break up from the highest “I love you” they can tap into, while expressing their desire to shift out of romance.
Is Fear Winning Over Growth?
What’s fascinating to me as a Love Coach, working with many couples and observing the patterns that emerge, is how many threats-to-break-up or break-ups have more to do with the wielding of power. We often use ‘force & leverage’ to avoid what we don’t want. And most of us have a latent & invisible terror of transformation. Healthy relationships always shape you, they sculpt you, they carve off your unconscious defensive persona in an attempt to reveal who you actually are under your wound-driven neuroses, beneath your defended self. And when the biggest game of Love is on, fear is hiding in the shadows -fear of not being enough, fear of intimacy, fear of failure, fear of heartbreak & fear of death (the mother of ALL fears).
Ultimately, it’s a primal fear of being forced into identity-level shifts which threaten the individual’s’ current sense of self, that often funds the drive to break-up. To shift your fundamental identity feels like dying. And in a way, it is. But just like learning trades in old paradigms for new ones, so too Love asks you to revisit your most cherished beliefs and check if they are still serving you.
As a couple progresses partners begin to feel: “I have to change in order to be with you” which feels like a rejection of who they currently are. Another, more useful interpretation is “Being with you invites me to become who I really am, beneath my guarded, compulsive ways-of-being”.
In the game of transformation, if you identify as the caterpillar you’ll see the cocoon of relationship as a pending annihilation. If you identify as the butterfly, you’ll have faith in a magnificent re-birth as a freer version of your self. Healthy lovers switch back and forth between these two states, acclimatizing to the quivers of “ecstasy-terror” that form the deepest baseline of True Love relationships.
The self-development being called for by the maturing relationship is often enough to send our comfy status-quo-preserving-selves running for the hills, hence the seemingly inevitable break-up. For those who value self-actualization more than their defensive personas, True Love becomes an excellent opportunity to ascend the developmental spiral towards greatness.
All relationships are work -hard work- the hardest work there is for growth-oriented humans. In my experience, everyone wants to run from their partner at some point. Each in-love couple I know, has silently entertained ‘break-up’ at some exasperated point. Relationships bring up ALL our unhealed early attachment wounds with our parents and yet true romance is the optimal container in which those wounds can finally be healed. I have more trust for a love that’s been to the edge of annihilation and back; those relationships have character.
You Marry Your Mother or Father…
Imago therapy suggests the partner we choose is often a surrogate for the parent with whom we’ve had the deepest wounds. Our attraction is based on an unconscious desire to replay the same familiar (& painful) scripts from our childhood, in hopes that this time, with our new attachment figure (partner) we’ll get our happy ending: to finally feel accepted & loved the way we always wanted. I see it like this: our higher selves “hire” our romantic partners to infiltrate the Fort Knox of our status-quo, emancipate us from our wound-driven smallness and help unleash our stifled greatness. But once they get to work doing the very thing we hired (fell in love with) them to do, we flip out and start to consider breaking up. Something I learned from author Warren Farrell, criticism and complaints can be seen as bumbled versions of “I love you, I know you can do better?”
There is a way to love your partner just as they are AND simultaneously stand for the highest future version of their selves. For example, I can love my 2 year old daughter’s fumbling sentences exactly as they are now, yet stand for her speaking much better in the future with fluid articulate assertions of her thoughts. She’s perfect right now, unfolding at her own pace AND I know she will do better. Like with all software, the latest iteration does not render previous versions wrong, they’re simply transcended, and transcend always means include. The future version you dream for your partner, does not make their current self “bad or wrong”, rather it transcends and includes all their previous selves. Only when someone feels loved as is, where they currently are in their development, can they be genuinely inspired towards their next version.
Are You Willing to Die?
True Love is not for the faint-hearted, it is a gladiator sport and very rarely attempted seriously in most romance. Why? Because it takes immense audacity, faith & the courage to play it full out. In-Love couples have to “die-into” love. It asks us to trade in our “I” for a “WE”. This may, at first, look like a compromise, but eventually the “WE” -if it’s the right relationship- gives you back an “I” way bigger, more profound and resilient than the one you originally ‘sacrificed’. However, trading in our “I” can feel like annihilation, and understandably has fear associated. When the fear (often masquerading as anger towards the other) wins over the love, this is the point at which most run, escape, break-up, leave the house of US.
True Love is the only force strong enough to keep you in the partner game when everything else says leave. It’s stronger than all your fears put together -perhaps it’s the only thing that is. Despite being marginalized to a fairy tale by many cynics, True Love is the epitome of what’s possible between two people. I believe it is the highest game available to us. And to live your entire life never having known what is possible there, is to miss out on the most exquisite aspect of being a human being. Which is why I’ve dedicated my life to helping people fall & stay in love.
How Do You Know if You’re Really in Love?
My favorite quote from John Perry Barlow is:
“The difference between love & True Love, is the difference between a very large number & infinity.”
You know it’s True Love when your belief in the relationship wins out over every other belief. At times, in the darkest moments, when all your feelings and evidence suggest leaving is the one option, only your “faith” (bootstrapped from nothing but the audacity of possibility) will keep you going.
Love’s question is this: Are you willing to do the challenging shadow work, using the relationship as a mirror for your hidden blind-spots, letting it sculpt your block of marble into your future David? Or do you leave when your identity gets challenged by a partner who is fighting for your greatness by nudging you to re-invent yourself at the next level up? That’s the final test.
Let me be clear, it’s totally ok if you do leave -I’ve left most of my past relationships once their developmental purpose had been served, yet I consider them all “successful” in that they were educations in love. When you leave you’re indicating: this dynamic is no longer one that best serves your growth.
And it’s not because your partner isn’t good enough or you’re not good enough, it’s because there isn’t a match. Just as if I took my apartment key and tried to open your front door, it wouldn’t work -not because there’s something wrong with my key or your lock, but simply they aren’t a match, and so the door cannot open.
At any given time, whoever you are dating is either the ‘one’ or practice for the ‘one’, so you always want to bring your A-game. Whoever you’re with right now, is always the right person to be with, until you’re no longer together. So long as both parties are ‘in the relationship’, no matter how tumultuous, they’re each getting a payoff (on some level) and I believe the system will naturally shift when both parties have achieved what they came there to learn.
Some people expect their relationship to make them happy and seek to escape when it doesn’t. Relationships that optimize for happiness, comfort or ease are often codependency in disguise. The actualization aspect of Love optimizes for aliveness which encompasses the full range of human emotions. This includes happiness, delight and ecstasy, but it also includes pain, sadness, anxiety and despair. Like a glass prism that breaks light into it’s latent rainbow wavelengths, relationships expose True Love as the white light of emotions. Inside of Love lives all feelings, at every level of intensity. This is an aspect of its infinitude.
When to Stay in a Relationship
You stay when you can look into your partner’s eyes and see access to your greatest version of yourself. You stay when you believe they can & will stand fiercely for your growth, even risking your approval for it. You stay when this relationship serves as a refuge for your soul and a trampoline for your dreams. You stay when you’re sure, no one else could ever love your partner better than you.
There is an other-worldly sense that this person was custom-made-by-the-universe for you, both in their greatness and in their darkness. Their very “flaws” produce the best opportunity for you to transcend your own.
In True Love, the basic needs and emotional wants of our partner demand a certain level of expansion and development in us. One way to look at it is this: Would the person my partner is asking/needing me to become, be a more extraordinary/ powerful/ freer/ truer/ actualized version of myself? If the answer is yes, then they are the ideal gymnasium to develop those very muscles you would never be able to access, far less grow in any other context. Love is a zendo, a spiritual dojo.
Choosing a long-term partner is selecting the highest leverage/ least pain/ maximal growth path to self-actualization you can find. We fall in love with (ie: hire) the sexiest, smartest, most advanced version of the parent we have the most wounds with in order to heal & transcend the hidden shackles from those wounds. It’s the most important job we ever interview for and should be taken very seriously, so never settle. (If you’re wondering “am I settling”, you most likely are.) Don’t settle for good enough, ever. It took me 38 yrs to find my soul mate, and I’m not chopped liver.
For me, divorce would mean I didn’t do my research properly.
All shadow work has to do with reintegrating fragmented parts of ourselves. Our wounds were formed in-relationship and therefore can only be healed in relationship. No amount of meditation on a mountain can solve your mommy issues. That’s why comprehensive shadow work cannot be done alone, we need a partner, a blind-spotter, an intimate mirror. One we trust to reflect back the painful but important truths, without which we cannot get to our next level of maturation.
I really want you to explore True Love and have the profound transformation that comes from that dance. Who you will become -for yourself and for the world- will be exponentially more magnificent.
And finally, when considering whether you should stay or you should go, take comfort in knowing this…whichever you choose, will always be right.