Relationships, even the best of them, require care and attention. If you are in a relationship and like most people, you have had to work on things. It’s like keeping your body healthy. You can’t ignore it and expect it to be in top form.
But, if you’ve been in triage mode for a long time—wrapping wounds, stopping the bleeding, and doling out prescriptions, you may be wondering: when it’s time to just let go?
Many challenging relationships have a significant watershed moment when everything changes. A shift takes place, and there is no going back. It isn’t a shift in what you do, or what the other person does, but in your perception. The veil lifts. The plank falls from your eye. You see things in a new way.
Depending on what your deal breakers are, there are going to be some watershed moments that are easy to interpret. For example, if your partner—
- Harms you
- Harms your child(ren)
- Cheats on you
- Lies to you
- Steals from you…
… the light bulb may go bright and then you walk out the door without a qualm, knowing that everything is different and you can’t be with this person.
But it is often not that clear-cut.
√ How do you recognize the tipping point when it comes?
√ How do you trust yourself to know?
√ What happens next?
So often the “moment” is not even that big a deal. It is often something your partner does, you do, or a reaction one of you has… something that— even though you may have seen this same behavior or reaction before—the relationship can’t recover from. Your defenses, your excuses, your fears all fall away to allow you to see clearly, maybe for the first time. This … moment, whatever it is, reveals
- your partner’s inability to be present/loving in a relationship with you
- or your unwillingness to continue “working around” the issue
- or that there is no going forward with the relationship or back to the happy ignorance that existed before this moment.
The knowing can slam into you like a hammer, or creep up on you like a ghost. There is often a physical sensation that accompanies an epiphany. Sometimes the physical sensation, or the reaction to the event, occurs before your mind even realizes what is happening, or that you have hit this tipping point. That is normal. You may feel numb and almost shell shocked, or uncontrollable grief accompanied by weeping, or reactions that range from almost imperceptible (a stillness inside) to violent (vomiting or rage).
Nancy watched a TV show with her husband about women athletes seeking to get equal pay. When it was over, her husband challenged women’s worthiness as “true athletes.” At first Nancy (an athlete) thought they were just having a discussion and she presented an opposing point of view. Eventually she realized that he could and would not hear her or give credence to her opinion. She became upset and asked if they could drop it the subject. He would not let it go. His escalated competitiveness to prove himself, win the argument, and triumph, led him to looking for “evidence” on his computer while his wife left the room sobbing because he would not look at or listen to her. She fell into bed, only to rise up hours later violently sick to her stomach, vomiting as the realization dawned. She saw him and the dynamic that had prevailed in their relationship as if through new eyes. She knew she would no longer be able to acquiesce or “let things go” in order to keep peace.
Julian and his long-term girlfriend, Tracy, were traveling for the holidays. With six hours left before they got home, Tracy started talking about dreams she’d been having in which she was single, out on the town, and flirting with men. Then she began wondering, out loud, if she perhaps would be better off single. After all, Julian wasn’t that successful. He’d just been laid off. And his kids still lived with them part-time and she was tired of taking care of them. Besides, she could do better. The tirade of insulting, abusive, passive-aggressive commentary was nothing particularly new, but somehow, being trapped in the car and hearing it this time, Julian knew he had to shut it out for good. When Tracy took over the driving, Julian got into the back seat, plugged in his headphones, and shut down.
One morning, Samantha, running late for work, asked her husband, Vince, to wipe down the crumb-strewn counters. She hated to come home from work and have to clean up his breakfast mess. He knew that, didn’t he? But every day it was the same. Today, as he had many times before, Vince grumbled about how Samantha could never see anything he did right, only the things he did wrong. She stayed calm, suggested that if he would just remember to wipe up his messes, they might not have so many ants in the kitchen. He paused and replied, “Well, I guess if we have ants, cleaning the counter is actually important, not just important to you. So I’ll try to remember.” On her drive to work, Samantha could not stop crying. Tears streamed from her chin and she wondered how she would be able to greet her 9:00 clients. A hole had opened up inside her.
⇒ So how, if Samantha had had that conversation, or one like it, with Frank countless times in the past, had she seen his lack of caring, and felt it, so differently this time?
⇒ If Julian was with Tracy for 5 years, why was it only now that he saw her self-centered abusiveness for what it was?
⇒ And surely Nancy knew her husband’s self-esteem was fragile, that he cared more about winning than loving her, and yet, tonight, in this moment, the knowledge slammed into her with a resounding, echoing blow.
These people went from willingness to work on the relationship to being done. Chugging away with hope gave way to needing to move on. The tipping point is when something that may have changed, in time, shows that it probably won’t. The problem, the challenge, the issue becomes….undeniable.
Samantha did not leave her husband for a few more months. Julian moved out the next day. For Nancy, it took almost two years to process her feelings and her understanding, do what she considered “due diligence” before signing off on a marriage that had lasted for over a decade and produced two children.
Processing can be done both consciously and subconsciously. It can happen in a moment or it can take years. But knowing that watershed moment when it happens can save you and your partner anguish, time, money, and even your sanity.
An inconsequential moment. A word or phrase tossed off casually. An eye roll, a shrug, or even nothing—a failure to react when reaction is called for, or a lack of attention when attention is needed. It can be anything.
My advice to you is: Don’t go looking for it. Work on your relationship. Love each other. But if you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach—the gut punch of awareness—pay attention.