What does “healthy” look like?
The most important part of any relationship is authenticity. Authenticity has been defined as many things in the literature, but some of its noteworthy characteristics include honesty, openness, self-awareness, and insightfulness. Thus, a certain level of psychological maturity is implied. Also, when someone is authentic, he or she does not wear masks, or transform into a different person depending on the occasion, situation, or social group. Someone authentic is consistent, and reliable in the sense that they say what they mean and mean what they say. Authenticity is about being true to oneself, and not being afraid to show this emotional vulnerability to others. For this reason, authenticity also relies on courage and compassion – being accepting of oneself, flaws and all, and being brave enough to trust other people to also be accepting of all of you.
When you have authenticity, then many other aspects of a healthy relationship follow. Assuming the authenticity is two-way, then there is also likely to be healthy communication, trust, tolerance, validation, and an equal give and take. Both individuals will feel not only valued and appreciated, but also supported, and even encouraged to grow as a person irrespective of what the implications are for the relationship. For example, you may encourage a friend or partner to take an amazing career opportunity out of the area, even though it may severely impact your ability to stay as connected. Or perhaps your partner wants to start school and you encourage them to do that knowing how positive the outcome will be for them, regardless of how much less time you will have for each other.
Think about a relationship or friendship that you believe was a healthy one in your past. Remember how you thrived? Remember how you were both equally excited to spend time together and share memories, and perhaps how often you felt so blessed to have this relationship? Now, think about all of your current relationships. Do they fit this description? Have things changed and you’ve refused to accept it? Are you trying to force it back into what it used to be? Do you find that you are investing more and more, with less and less results? Maybe the “noise” of life has clouded the positives in your relationship. Or maybe you’ve simply outgrown the relationship.
There is no need to place blame on yourself or the other person when a relationship has begun to change. Everything waxes and wanes, and change is an inevitable, healthy, and a guaranteed part of life. One of the keys to a happy successful life is to live mindfully (i.e., pay attention) and recognize when your relationships are no longer serving you well, and then to move forward quickly instead of lingering in a state of stasis. Life is dynamic. We are dynamic. And relationships are dynamic. We must keep growing and be open to life’s unplanned surprises. Why? Because everyone is evolving. Stagnation may lead to a lowered sense of self-esteem, or a belief that life is meaningless. And this may then lead to depression, anxiety, and a whole host of maladaptive coping behaviors, possibly used to numb us to the reality of our own stagnation or “stuckness.”
People often stay in friendships because of a long, shared history, and maybe even a sense of guilt about moving forward and making new friends. Perhaps you feel regretful about acknowledging that a relationship that once thrived is languishing. Suddenly, you recognize that you have very little in common with this once “best” friend or partner. While you were both busy with life, you grew apart. And it’s normal to feel sadness about this. It’s also important to validate your feelings about this type of loss. Remember, death is not the only type of loss we experience in life. And all loss, whether it is of a person, a career, your health, or a dream, are all valuable. Memories are wrapped up in a relationship, not just of the other person, but also of the other versions of ourselves. A relationship is symbolic of life experiences that have passed, maybe crises we have overcome, or traumatic events that brought us even closer to that person. We may recall our dreams, fantasies, or significant transitions in our lives through the lens of these relationships.
How do we end relationships compassionately?
We take ownership for our part. Period. Many people end relationships in anger. But this is unhealthy and also completely unnecessary. Why do we do this? Because if we focus on the anger about our unmet expectations then it distracts us from the real pain of loss – the sadness about how things have changed and no longer work well, or the worry about never finding this love again. We need to take a step back and recognize that however emotional we may be feeling, our decision to end a relationship or friendship is not an emotional one (well, hopefully, it’s not an impulsive decision!). Ideally, you have put thought into your situation and you are now willing to be honest with yourself and the other person about your thoughts. It’s important to make time to sit down with this person and communicate openly and honestly about your perception of your shared reality. Your friend or partner may not be happy to hear the news, but at least you are showing up authentically. And the other person in your life will appreciate that because they are not left guessing about what just happened. Sometimes it is that authenticity that can save a solid relationship that may have simply gone off the rails due to negligence and an overload of other life obligations (e.g., children, family member health issues, financial strain, career changes).
If it is a romantic relationship that you have outgrown, then there is likely no way around having this big conversation. However, platonic friendships often fade into the background of your history because you find yourself “too busy” to get together and you no longer prioritize time with that person. And that’s okay. This is the natural evolution of relationships that no longer serve us well. There is no need, in either case, to be unkind or to focus on all the things the other person has done wrong. We don’t have to justify and beat everyone up with all the reasons why we are calling time of death on the relationship. That is just unnecessary guilt driving your behavior. Maybe nobody is wrong, only different. Is it okay that people grow and change, sometimes divergently? Yes, it is okay, and we must radically accept that this is an absolute part of life.
How do we put closure when we are left hanging?
My patients often discuss having a need for closure. And sure, we all want closure on the parts of life that have finished. However, we don’t always get closure from the other person or a defined event marking the end. Sometimes we have to simply place closure on the situation ourselves. How do you do that? Well, for starters, you do NOT personalize any of it. Someone else stepping out of a relationship really has nothing to do with you. Perhaps you shared some part of your journeys, but never forget that each person in a relationship is still on his or her own journey. Maybe they stopped growing and you kept growing and they recognize that they cannot keep up. Maybe their previous needs are not their current needs. For whatever reason, trust in the fact that something has changed, and it is no longer serving them (and perhaps you too!) well. And that’s okay. It’s painful, but it’s okay. And if you truly love and care for this person, you will allow them space to move forward on their journey even if you are not on it with them.
One of the most common errors in thought-processing I witness is the human tendency to over-personalize other peoples’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We really do think everything is about us. If someone leaves us, it must mean they don’t love me or we did something wrong. If someone at work is angry, we either feel equally angry that they would take it out on us, or we take responsibility. If someone is sad or feeling a certain way, we wonder if we made them feel that way, and we just assume that it has something to do we us or we can actually change the way they feel. None of these examples are in fact true. Every human being is responsible for him- or herself – thoughts or beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. We don’t get to blame other people for how negatively we are thinking, or how badly we feel, or certainly any decisions we make and actions we take. Nobody else has that kind of power over you. We have influence, at best, over another person, but nothing more.
Ownership and authenticity may be at the core of every healthy relationship, platonic or romantic. Learning how to take responsibility for what is yours and communicate that with another person is a skill well-worth honing. And obviously, in order to do this, we must also work towards being the healthiest and most authentic version of ourselves. It’s a process that never ends – you have the potential to grow until the day you die. It’s never too late to get “unstuck” and out of your state of stagnation. It’s never too late to work on being a better, happier, healthier version of yourself. It’s never too late to redeem yourself and make amends. It’s NEVER TOO LATE to make a change. Don’t focus on yesterday. It’s over. All we have is today – me, right now, right here.