Are all relationships meant to last forever? Considering how much we grow and change over time, individually and as couples, can we guarantee that we will grow in the same way and direction as our partner of five years, ten years or twenty years? Is it possible that some relationships, which we may have made a deep commitment to, reach a place where staying involves stunting individual growth for the sake of the relationship rather than fostering growth?
Although it’s true that entanglements and distancing in relationships can often be worked out through conscious understanding and psychological work, I believe there are times when relationships have reached a completion point, where it is not serving the individuals involved to hang on to the relationship. If it’s true that leaving a relationship can sometimes be what is best and most healthy, then I would like to present the possibility that we change the way we hold divorce and separation. Currently, we often see separation as a failure of a relationship. Often there is blame happening on both sides and when we hear of people separating we wonder what when wrong. Rather than looking for blame, I would like us to consider that there are many relationships in our lives that are only meant to last for a while, as wonderful and beautiful as they may be, and then they reach a completion stage where it is time to move on. Moving on can be a success story rather than a failure.
As a relationship therapist I am a strong advocate of working out disagreements, differences and distancing within relationships. Much of the difficulty couples face stem from unhealthy dynamics in which the partners have become entangled. Through courage, work and commitment these unhealthy dynamics can be untangled and the relationship can become vital and satisfying once again. That being said, there are times when a relationship is no longer serving one or both of the individuals in the relationship, and the healthiest course of action is to end the relationship rather than attempt to make things work.
I see individuals and couples who have come to a place where the relationship is no longer serving them in a healthy way, but these people hold on to the relationship partly out of fear and partly because of an idea that as long as a person still loves their partner the relationship must last forever. Most of us hold the notion that divorce and separation only happens when relationships “fail.” We get images of nasty fights and of two people who have come to have a high level of animosity towards each other. It is bitterness that drives couples to separate, we think.
But what about those couples who don’t necessarily hold bitterness towards each other, still sometimes enjoy each other’s company, and may even still love one another, but have changed and grown since they came together and find what feels most healthy and true is to leave the relationship? I heard the story recently of one man, after 20 years of marriage finding clarity that he needed to leave the marriage and stated:
“This relationship is complete.”
I appreciated how that statement felt free of guilt, drama, blame or bitterness. He felt like he lived out the relationship to it’s completion, learned what he needed to learn and came to a place where it was time to move on. End of story.
I propose we leave more room for the idea that a successful marriage or relationship does not necessarily mean forever. A successful relationship is one in which we grow, love and learn until it is time to move on, which may be two years, ten years or thirty years from the time we enter into a commitment. And the end doesn’t have to be a couple at war with one another. The end may be still be incredibly painful, but respectful and loving as well. There does not have to be something terribly wrong with either of the partners, so no sides to be taken and no blame or hatred.
I can appreciate the idea of forever as much as the next person. There is security in the idea of forever, “till death do us part.” For some couples forever is a happy reality. However, there is another reality that I see people who are confused and guilt-ridden by their feelings of needing to leave a relationship which is clearly at it’s end, but staying because there is no healthy model of a good relationship which has come to completion. They think if things haven’t gotten ugly between them and their partner that it means they must stay.
Even good, loving and supportive relationships may have a completion point where both parties are better served by moving on, and the moving on can be done with love, respect and care.