I recently received an e-mail from a fellow who saw my post on The Seduction Bible. He wanted some advice regarding his ex-girlfriend, who he’d been seeing for almost a year. Out of respect for his privacy I won’t reveal the details, but the relationship seemed pretty full of drama and, although they’re broken up now, they are still blurring that line between friends, friends-with-benefits, and romantic partners. The thing that struck me about his e-mail was that he said several times that he’s always “in it till the end,” and that if he feels there is even the smallest chance of saving a relationship then he will keep trying.
This, of course, raises the question: when is enough, enough? How do you know when it’s “the end”? How do you know when “the smallest chance” for saving a relationship has passed?
When it comes to my own experience, the vast majority of the time it was easy to decide enough was enough–largely because I rarely went on more than three dates with someone. It’s a lot easier to call something off at that point. However, I’ve noticed that once people have invested any sort of time into a relationship then they become increasingly likely to stay in the relationship, even when things start to unravel (sort of a law of inertia understanding of relationships–objects at rest tend to stay at rest). This includes me.
I would say that out of the four “major” relationships I’ve been in, I ended two of them (I’m not including Lance because we broke up due to my moving across the country). And both times, I knew that the relationships needed to end months before I managed to screw my courage to the sticking point and finally just do it. And I’m sure that the two fellows who broke up with me did exactly the same thing. Additionally, when the first fellow that I dated seriously broke up with me, we had the very complicated on-again, off-again, trying-to-work-it-out dynamic that the fellow who e-mailed me described. So, what’s with that?
The Fear of “Wasted Time.”
I’ve observed that many people have a tendency to perceive a relationship as “wasted time” if they’ve invested, say, more than six months or a year into a relationship and it “doesn’t go anywhere.” Sometimes this pressure is internal, sometimes it’s external (when your friend says, “I hope this is the guy, because you only have x many years to have kids left,” or what have you). Sometimes it’s a mix of both. The point is, the idea that time is somehow “wasted” if a relationship “ends” has all sorts of negative consequences.
First, it’s important to remember (and easy to forget) that all relationships are learning experiences. A relationship that ends has the potential to teach you about yourself, what you need and what you’re looking for, to help you evolve into a more mature and understanding person, and to apply what you’ve learned to your next relationship–both in terms of who you select and how you treat who you select. Second, relationships don’t have to conclude with marriage to “go somewhere.” Lance and I didn’t “end up together” in any sort of romantic sense, and he’s hardly wasted time–as both our friendship and this blog illustrate.
The Tendency to Justify Your Choice
When you’re afraid that you’re “wasting time,” then it becomes all too easy to overlook behavior that you never would have put up with in the first couple months of dating someone. Ask yourself–if this person had treated you this way in the beginning, would you have continued to be attracted to them? Once you know someone better, it’s tempting to rationalize the way someone treats you–to attribute all of the negatives to external circumstances that “explain away” the fact that you’ve been unhappy, or to build up some sort of vague future where “as soon as” x, y, and z fall into place everything will be perfect.
Admittedly, we live in a complicated world. However, everyone’s responsible for their own actions, and people don’t treat you badly by accident. If their actions constantly and continuously indicate that they don’t respect or trust you, or that you’re not a priority in their life, then guess what? They don’t. And you’re not. It’s like I told the BF:
I promise that every day I am with you, I am actively choosing to be with you because I am happy–rather than passively remaining with you because it is easy. I realize that every day is a choice, and that every day you are with me, you are actively choosing to be with me because you are happy rather than passively remaining with me because it is easy.
The Belief that People Can Change
I once had a friend ask me if I thought that people could change. Like the fellow who e-mailed me, I knew that she was asking about her ex-boyfriend, with whom she’d had a very drama-filled on-again off-again relationship. At that point they’d been broken up for a couple of months and she was still quite hung up on him and hoping that they could work it out. My response?
People can change for their next relationship, but never for you.
That is, just as inertia is a powerful force that leads us to stay in relationships where we’re unhappy, our past experiences and relationship dynamics with someone create a powerful momentum that is incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to overcome. You can grow and change and realize all sorts of things about yourself and apply them to your next relationship, but if you get back together with someone then you will fall back into the exact same patterns and habits that led to your being unhappy and breaking up in the first place.
This is why, years ago, I instituted a “clean break” rule, where I never ever got back together or initiated a FWB relationship with someone that I used to date. I don’t know anyone for whom that ended well, but I do know tons of other people who independently conceived and implemented the clean break rule.
By interpreting bad romantic relationships as “wasted time,” justifying your choice, and talking yourself into the idea that you or your partner can change, you’re only denying yourself the opportunity to find someone with whom you’re compatible. Instead of denying yourself happiness by refusing to learn from your experiences, show yourself the respect you deserve and take action.
Obviously there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule about how much time has to pass before you can draw these conclusions. In the Sex and the City movie when Samantha is trying to decide whether or not to stay with her long-term boyfriend Smith, Samantha asks Charlotte how often she is happy. Charlotte says, “Every day.” When her friends are incredulous at this answer, she amends, “Not all day every day, but…yes, every day.” Some of my own criteria for knowing when enough’s enough:
- Knowing that if I met the person today, I’d never date them.
- Being unhappy more often than I am happy.
- Being unhappy about things that I cannot change (i.e., the way the other person treats me).
- Feeling pressured by the other person to alter fundamental aspects of myself to make them happy.
- Feeling as if the other person is my “last chance” or only option for happiness.
Good luck out there, everyone! Don’t be scared to choose to be happy.