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Relationship Advice: When to Break Up

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One of the most important questions in a problematic relationship is when you ought to work on things and when you ought to walk away. It's not always easy to know what to do. Here are some tips for how to determine whether a relationship is salvageable or best gotten out of.

In every relationship, there are three types of needs: the things that you can't live without, the things that you can't live with, and everything else, which is negotiable.

The first group of needs, the things you can't live without, would include items like trust, respect and a sense of connection, but really, anything could be on the list, as it's what you specifically need.

If you see that you've been foregoing the things that you really can't live without in the relationship, you must discover whether it's possible to have them. Otherwise, you'll be settling for less, which will make you very unhappy.

The second list is what are known as the "deal breakers." These are the things you can't live with. They're different for every person, but they can include neglect, abuse and infidelity. Staying in a relationship which includes one or more deal breakers is a recipe for long-term unhappiness and often, resentment.

If one or more deal breakers are present in your relationship, you'll have to see whether it's possible for you partner to stop what they're doing immediately. There's no point in waiting for them to change. You've already been tolerating the intolerable.

If your partner can't stop the deal-breaking behaviours right away, they may never do it, and then you'll be stuck waiting indefinitely for something that you need immediately.

The rest of our needs are things that we can be flexible about. These issues may be frustrating or annoying but they don't cause us suffering if they're absent or present.

If we're OK living with the toilet seat always being up or the windows open at night when we'd prefer them closed, or even with someone who smokes, then of course, leaving shouldn't be an option. These issues can be discussed and hopefully, over time, negotiated more to our satisfaction.

In my practice, my patients have two types of spouses: those who'll consider couples therapy and those who won't. When they're having problems, the couples who go to counselling always do better than the ones who don't. It's hard to work through relationship difficulties and often, some objective, professional guidance and support is extremely helpful.

If your partner absolutely refuses to go to counselling with you and you've tried to work it out with them but were unsuccessful, you have two choices: to keep trying to make things better on your own or to walk away.

At this point, letting your partner know how unhappy you are and that you're on the verge of leaving might motivate them to go into couples therapy with you, but it might not. People's resistance to looking at their choices and their behaviour can be strong and unyielding.

In the case of deal breakers, sometimes one person has done something extremely hurtful to the other one. A common example is infidelity. One post-affair scenario that I've seen too often is the jilted partner choosing to stay with the one who cheated but then behaving punitively toward them, creating a high level of conflict and unhappiness for everyone in the family.

If your partner has cheated on you, you have only three viable options: walk away if, in your heart, the infidelity was unforgivable; go for couples counselling to see if you can work it through, or find it in your heart to forgive them and carry on.

Of course, forgiveness isn't the right choice if your partner continues with their cheating ways, but if your partner understands how much hurt they've caused, is truly remorseful and has promised never to do it again, you might choose this option.

The one thing you should never do is keep harping on the affair or dredging it up in arguments. If you've chosen to stay, then you have to put it behind you. You don't have to forget the infidelity but you have to forgive it or at least let it go. Otherwise you'll be torturing yourself, your partner and your children, too.

Some people say that a couple should stay together for the sake of the children. I think that this is a bad idea. If there's a lot of overt or even subtle hostility between the couple, the children will be adversely affected. Staying together under these circumstances would be worse for the children than a separation.

What couples should do for the sake of the kids is attend counselling, in order to see whether they can resolve their differences, or to at least make an amicable separation.

Finally, one thing that we don't always think of when we talk about relationships: acceptance. In a couple, both people should be able to fully accept the other person as they are right now If either one of you is hoping to change the other person, you're both in trouble.

Relationships are complicated. People walk away not only because things aren't working out but because they're afraid to deal with their issues; they're ambivalent about intimacy or they're selfish and fickle. People stay not just out of love but out of fear, neediness or the false hope of something better.

Ideally, you should stay because you're happy, leave when things are unacceptable and work together on all the other issues, either as a couple or with professional support. Negotiating your relationship difficulties isn't easy but with the above tips, it might be a bit less complicated and confusing.

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