“My husband who has been treated for depression and anxiety our whole marriage, had a 3 year emotional affair with a 20-23 year old. At the time I found out, he then deteriorated due to xanax addiction. He has gotten off xanax but the subsequent recovery has been brutal. I suffer from loss of emotion/feeling/respect/affection for him. I don’t think I want to live with him in marriage. But I feel that I cannot leave a mentally ill/benzodiazepine injured non functioning person either. I have guilt and questions. He said, ‘If I had cancer would you just leave me?’ The truth is, we didn’t have a well of good memories/attachment/love prior to his affair, so there isn’t really anything to draw from now.”
I obviously haven’t faced this exact same situation in my own life, but I can relate to feeling guilty about ending a relationship. There are times in life when we feel the pull to move on – the pull to leave a particular relationship behind – and to do what’s best for ourselves, but feeling guilty about the potential impact on the other person makes us pause.
An intimate romantic relationship is fertile ground for this kind of breakup guilt. (OMG, I’m going to break someone’s heart!) But guilt feelings can also arise from other kinds of breakups, such as wanting to distance yourself from a close relative, end a friendship, or even leave a job.
Human beings evolved to feel guilt and shame, because these feelings helped to keep the tribe together. The feeling of guilt alerts us that we are about to hurt someone – ie. cause conflict and jeopardize the group. A gazillion years ago, those ancestors of ours who were able to keep the group together were more likely to survive.
Now, obviously, most of us don’t live in tribal societies anymore. And sometimes our guilt feelings are disproportionate given current realities. Nobody is going to starve to death even if you break up with your college best friend when you hit age 30.
So how do you sort out what you should actually do when you are feeling guilty about potentially ending a relationship?
Every relationship and situation is unique, of course, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer. But let me share with you some questions that I have asked myself in the past when weighing my options.
Feeling Guilty About Ending A Relationship? Questions To Ask Yourself
1. What Is The Big Picture Impact Of This Relationship?
When you are thinking about whether to continue or end a particular relationship, it’s easy to get stuck just considering the immediate impact of this decision on the other person in the relationship.
But it’s important to remember that all of your relationships impact your life as a whole. So it can be hugely illuminating to zoom up from that one relationship and think about the bigger picture.
Every relationship has its challenges, but on balance, a relationship with staying-power gives more than it takes.
Do you know what draining relationships do? They drain you.
They drain you of life energy. And when that one relationship sucks it all out of you, the energy is not available for other things in your life.
For keeping yourself healthy, for other relationships, for your work.
Questions To Ask
- What do you get from this relationship?
- What does this relationship take?
- What is the impact of this relationship on your physical health?
- What is the impact of this relationship on your mental health?
- What is the impact of this relationship on other relationships that are important to you?
- If this relationship ended, what would you do that you are now not able to do? Where would your energy be directed?
2. Can This Relationship Improve Or Are You Just Delaying The Inevitable?
Relationships start and end.
Some relationships end in hurt and heartbreak.
These are just facts of life. Being vulnerable to hurt and heartbreak is a risk we all take when we decide to enter a relationship.
Sure, a few relationships last a lifetime, but many more don’t. People grow and develop. Circumstances change. Feelings can’t be forced. Two people who had compatible preferences and needs and circumstances 10 years ago may be a terrible match today.
This is what happens, and even if we try to prevent it, sometimes we just can’t. Life is simply too unpredictable and there are too many variables at play. Shit happens. Conflict happens.
The trick is to figure out whether the conflict can reasonably be resolved. When does a relationship have true staying power and when are you just delaying the inevitable?
Questions To Ask
- What is the likelihood that this relationship will improve over time? Is the other person willing and capable of changing in ways that would make you feel differently about the relationship? What have you already done for the sake of this relationship and what, if anything, do you have left to give?
- What is the likelihood that your feelings toward this person will change over time?
- If change is unlikely, are you willing and capable of tolerating the relationship for the rest of your life?
- If change is unlikely, what is the long-term impact on the other person of maintaining a relationship with someone who doesn’t really want to be there? Would you want to stay in a relationship with someone who doesn’t genuinely want to be in a relationship with you?
3. How Much Responsibility Is Yours To Carry?
Here’s one of my all-time favorite relationship quotes:
“If I cut you off, the chances are you handed me the scissors.”
Starting a relationship takes two people. Maintaining a relationship takes two people. The more effort these two people put into relationship maintenance, the stronger the connection will potentially grow.
Now, if one party stops participating in a relationship… If one party starts directing their efforts elsewhere… And especially if that person deliberately does things to harm the relationship… The relationship will suffer. And sometimes the damage is so irreparable that the relationship will just die.
This is just another fact of life.
You can’t deliberately take a sledgehammer to a relationship and then expect the other person to be all eager to rebuild.
You can’t treat people like shit and still expect them to be there when you need them.
Even if you have depression. Even if you have anxiety. Even if you are an addict. Even if you are old. Even if you have cancer. Even if you can come up with a million excuses for your behavior.
Questions To Ask
- What have you contributed to this relationship to date?
- What has the other person contributed to this relationship to date?
- To what degree are you responsible for the current state of the relationship?
- To what degree is the other person responsible for the current state of the relationship?
- Who and what are you responsible for in life in general? (See this post for a longer discussion of this topic.)
4. What Can You Do To Stay True To Your Values While Ending The Relationship?
Having guilt feelings doesn’t necessarily mean that you are about to do something wrong. It might just mean that you are a caring person with concern for other people’s well-being. You feel uncomfortable, because your actions might hurt the other person’s feelings or make their life more difficult in the short term. When a relationship ends, stress and hurt feelings are inevitable, especially if we are talking about a close, long-term relationship.
But doing the right thing isn’t always the same as the easiest thing or the thing that will elicit the least objections.
Sometimes we need to do what we need to do even if makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes ending a relationship is the right thing to do, even if the other person can’t see it yet and even if it means that they (and you!) will experience some hardship.
So instead of seeing the guilt as a big red STOP sign, we might see it as a PROCEED WITH CAUTION sign instead.
The guilt may simply be a signal to go about the breakup in a way that minimizes stress and hurt for all parties. Even if some turmoil is inevitable, you can proceed with the breakup in a manner that is consistent with who you want to be as a person and with your core values.
Questions To Ask
- What is the best time and place to let the other person know about your decision?
- How can you explain your decision in a way that emphasizes your needs and feelings rather than focusing on the other person’s shortcomings?
- Does the other person have special needs that you have been responsible for meeting? Does the other person have a support system that can take over meeting these needs? If not, how can you help the other person transition and create a support system other than you?
- How can you take care of yourself and alleviate your own stress through the transition period?
5. What Are You Best Suited To Give?
Here’s another fave quote:
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Ending relationships is hard. It’s so hard that it’s something I’d rather never have to do.
Sometimes we don’t have a choice. Some relationships are just handed to us at birth. And when we are young, we don’t always have the wisdom and life experience to know what we are getting into. We don’t know that we are committing ourselves to a relationship that is doomed from the get-go.
But as we grow and gain more awareness of ourselves and others, we can learn to prevent these doomed relationships from happening in the first place.
I used to just sit around waiting for relationships to come to me. I would wait for relationships to fall in my lap and then I would make it my mission to be whatever the people around me needed me to me. To give whatever they needed me to give. And then I would feel terribly guilty when I couldn’t. When I would get tired of twisting myself this way and that to keep other people comfortable. When I would get exhausted from giving my all but rarely getting anything back. When I would inevitably want the hell out.
This pattern changed when I stopped asking “What do people need?” and started asking these questions instead:
Questions To Ask
- What do you have to give at this point in time?
- Who are you as a person and what can you contribute to relationships without constantly draining yourself?
- What do you need to receive in order to have more to give? In other words, what is the best way to fill your cup so that you have something to pour?
- Where are the people who share your values and want what you want from relationships?
- Where are the people who want what you naturally have to give?