The anatomy of a relationship is comprised of many intricate parts, and when it begins to fall apart, there are many subtle and not so subtle signs if we have the courage to see them and name them for what they are. It is a slow erosion that gradually washes away the coastline, inch by beautiful inch. It is a cancer that spreads silently and insidiously until one day too late it is discovered and it is already in the bones.
If you are brave enough to look, lean in and listen for breath and feel for pulse, you will know the relationship is on its deathbed. And these tiny deaths in a relationship open the door to the end. When the connection shrinks, that is when partners become vulnerable to the things that finally kill the parts of the relationship that are still alive and desperately trying to hang on to survive. The insidious covert devaluation that happens before the final discard makes you question your own reality and allows them to murder you a little bit every day with clean hands and an even cleaner conscience.
In retrospect, the harbingers of doom were at our doorstep; the bellwether of change was all around us. It’s just so easy to look away and deny it.
The slow pulling away is palpable. You feel it in your gut but try to dismiss it.
When they have met someone else, this new partner comes to bed with you and you feel them right there beside you. Things are imperceptibly different: the ways he makes love feels altered as if the intimacy might belong to someone else. And then there are the ways he can’t make love anymore. If she’s right there in the room, sometimes it becomes impossible.
Sooner or later, the relationship founders and sinks to the bottom of the sea. And with this tragic loss, there are things a couple must go through together in order to free themselves from the wreckage and swim to safety.
There is no set order of events or prescription for calling it quits, but there are steps we take together in order to make sense of it all, process it, and lay the groundwork for closure in the months and years to follow. There are rules, expectations, codes of conduct that govern how to come to the place of ending a relationship in ways that do the least damage and leave each person intact. The failure of a love partnership is messy and difficult, but it is important to navigate it slowly, carefully, and with conscience.
How people leave you, how they end a relationship, how they exit a marriage, how they show you their new truth, all reveal their genuine character. The way they exit your life is everything that matters.
If they are reckless and trample all over everything the two of you built together or if they refuse to recognize the value of what you had and treat it with the respect it deserves, you’ll know more about them at that moment than in all the years you spent together.
It is so important to give the departing gift of validation to the relationship in the end. It was a beautiful thing and for awhile it was filled with love and magic and nourishment and warmth and joy and passion and excitement and adventure and teamwork and common vision and shared dreams and all that your soul and body and mind hungered for. You acknowledge those things, celebrate them, mourn their loss. You may argue about who is to blame for letting it all fade away; you may scream and shout then hold one another for what may be the last time and mix tears as you weep together for what is lost. There may be marathon discussions and dialogues and maybe negotiations and bargaining followed by more yelling and more crying, then a sad silence.
But all of these moments spent together, in the end, trying to get to the place where the D word is finally spoken, these difficult conversations are necessary.
It may end without resolution or agreement, but you both acknowledge the substantive nature of the relationship and demonstrate a healthy dose of anger, regret, sadness, remorse, and empathy. Those are the emotions that make us human and must show themselves through the final days.
The most inhumane departures come without warning. While one may have an intuitive sense that things are not what they should be, these breakups blindside one partner and leave them in shock. One day is filled with reassuring hugs and sweet kisses and then suddenly, in minutes, they are out the door.
My own story illustrates this point with painful accuracy. My husband was plotting his exit strategy for months, maybe even years before he finally left. He pretended everything was as it should be when he was trying to decide how to leave. We went on a three week trip to Europe and visited Paris and Lisbon, and there was nothing to imply impending doom. How could he stroll down the streets of St. Germaine hand in hand looking for carmel apple crepes or make pleasant conversation over a nice lunch and glass of wine as we cruised down the Seine on a cozy rain-soaked afternoon? He knew he was leaving but never said a word. All so his trip would not be ruined or canceled. Every kiss a lie. How could anyone be so false, so calculatingly ruthless?
Consider sample dialogue representing exactly what not to do when exiting a relationship:
He: “I am ready to leave you physically, and I left you emotionally a long time ago.”
She: “We were married for many long and mostly happy years. Why did you not tell me there was trouble brewing and try to save us or give me a chance to fight for us? When did you know you had stopped loving me? Did you ever really love me?”
He: “You can choose how you react to this and choose to just move on, be excited to make a new life like I am. You’re just single as I am now.”
She: “But we are not single. Literally yesterday we were a regular married couple. You were the one profound love of my entire life. I may never recover. The thought of being with someone else makes me want to die. What kind of heartless bastard just chooses to erase their partner without notice?”
He: “ You gave me too much freedom and time alone.”
She: “You wanted me to trust you, and that was my way of providing you personal alone time and space so we could come back together stronger. I thought I was respecting your need for things that belonged only to you and did not expect you would use that time to find my replacement.”
He: “I don’t want to take care of you. I just want to take care of myself.”
She: “Everyone thought you would betray me someday. Then they watched as you betrayed me countless times through the years and lost respect for me as I stayed and defended you and made excuses for you every single time. I gave up everything that mattered for you and abandonment is what I got in return?”
He: “The reason I tried to seduce other people and cheat was that you were emotionally disconnected.”
She: “The reason I struggled to stay connected was that you tried to seduce and cheat with other women, even ones that were the ultimate travesty of betrayal. It was the consequence of what you did first, not the other way around. Any person with healthy boundaries and any self-respect would have left, but I remained loyal to you until the end.”
He: “I don’t want to watch you get old and struggle to keep up, then gasp for breath in a hospital bed as you die.”
She: “We all get older and die, but at the first sign of weakness, you ran for the door. We promised to take care of each other in sickness and health. For the first time in my life, I feel old and useless.”
He: “Everything you ever told me was a lie. There is no right and wrong, no good and evil, no moral imperatives, I don’t want to live with labels.”
She: “I thought you were trying to be a good man. You appeared to understand the value of a moral compass and make efforts to be kind and a decent person with virtue. But you don’t think anything is truly wrong, so anything goes. No ethics, no compassion, no remorse, no soul.”
What kind of person launches missives such as these right out of the blue? What kind of person shifts the blame, refuses any accountability, drops the bomb with no warning, projects their own issues, denies wrongdoing and smirks through it all like it is amusing in some sick way?
She said, “But I’m in love with you.”
He said, ”I know you are.”
Then he disappeared.
The way they leave you tells you everything.