Sometimes I get emails from people wondering if a lack of love is enough of a reason to end a relationship. Questions like these usually come from people who’ve been with their partners for years. Sometimes children are involved. My short answer is yes. Yes, a lack of love is enough of a reason to end a relationship. I think when we’re in relationships for a long time, when we’ve taken vows in some cases, it’s difficult to figure out what “justifies” ending something, as if your partner has to be abusive or unfaithful for you to feel it’s okay to walk away. Guilt and shame are debilitating, and few people would thank you for staying out of pity or obligation; to do so dishonors the genuine gift of the human being with whom you’ve built a life, even if that life has been crumbling around you for some time, and the gift they are is now lost on you. Everyone deserves to be cherished. There are all kinds of situations that fall short of physical violence or infidelity (and infidelity isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker in certain cases) that can be crushing to the soul. Feeling invisible will do that to a person. Feeling unheard, neglected, dismissed, or verbally and emotionally abused will do it, too. So my short answer is yes.
However, I think it’s really important to dig a little. I think we throw each other away too quickly, we give up when times get tough, we drop the thread of the story we were creating. I also get emails from people who feel everything would be great if only their partners would change. Sometimes there’s a laundry list of things the other person does or doesn’t do that seems to be the reason it’s all falling apart. It’s important to remember that the mind is easily snagged on what isn’t working — what we don’t have that we want, what isn’t happening yet, the breaks we aren’t getting. It takes effort and practice to train the mind to focus on what we do have, what is going well, and the same thing can happen in relationships. Where once we saw and celebrated all that was right and beautiful about the person with whom we share a home, a life, maybe more, now we can only see the flaws, disappointments and aggravations. Sometimes people project their self-loathing onto the person closest to them. When you get to that eye-rolling place, that head-shaking, defeated place, you can be sure both parties have dropped the thread. It’s good to ask yourself what you’re doing to increase the love quotient between you and your partner. I’m sure you did thoughtful, sweet, surprising things in the beginning of your relationship, just because. What are you putting into the mix now? You can’t change other people, but you can inspire them. Perhaps if you start to focus on how you can uplift and delight the person you’re with (even if you don’t feel like it, and think they don’t deserve it), you might be very surprised by the results. Most people just want to feel seen and understood and appreciated. A little of that goes a long way.
It’s never one person’s fault if a relationship fails, and regardless of what happens, knowing yourself is the key to being at peace. The story to look it is the story of your participation. I know sometimes we want to cling to the list of ways we’ve been wronged, our chronological tale with highlights of places the other person failed, and maybe your partner did blow it. Maybe they haven’t seen you, and by that I mean really seen you, for ages. Maybe you gave them the gift of your tender heart and they weren’t gentle with it. Maybe you’ve been trying to communicate for years, and they just wouldn’t go there with you. Not everyone is ready to be vulnerable and brave at the same time, and that’s what love requires. Nonetheless, you participated, you contributed something. That’s the plot-line you want to study and understand.
If you chose someone for life when you had no idea who you were, that’s rough, but it happens every day. If you don’t know yourself, it’s very hard to choose a partner with whom you can build something solid, so that would be something to examine. Just, who am I? What lights me up, what are my particular gifts, and how do I best uncover and share them? If you don’t know the answers to those questions, I’d really start there because I don’t think you can be happy if you have no idea about that, whether you’re in a relationship or not. A lot of people expect their partners to make them happy, but no one can do that for you, and you can’t make other people happy, either. A person is at peace within themselves, or they are not.
Maybe you weren’t feeling good about yourself and threw yourself into your relationship to avoid doing your own work to heal, or perhaps you grew up thinking your role was to take care of everyone else, and you chose someone who needed you. There are all kinds of ways we can pick people for the wrong reasons, and all kinds of ways we can grow and learn from that, but if you can remember back to the beginning and there was anything good and healthy there, any spark of genuine connection and respect and understanding, then I think there’s hope. There’s potential, if both people are willing to dig and to feed that spark again.
If it was never a match, or you’ve grown in such different directions, or damage has been done that seems irreparable, then there may not be hope, but I’d check yourself thoroughly, because you want to really know why you’re ending something if you end it. If you’re not sure, if it’s unclear, that murkiness will show up in your next relationship, and the one after that, too. Anything you deny or numb out, or run from, owns you. It won’t go away just because you leave a relationship.
If there are children involved, I have to add a few things. If there’s physical violence or abuse, you have to go no matter what, and there’s no way around that (whether you have kids or you don’t). Short of that, if you’ve genuinely tried with everything you have to save your relationship and there’s just no hope, you have to go. If there’s meanness and fighting and that’s really the best you can do, you have to go. If you’re living like roommates, I don’t believe that’s sustainable either. If you haven’t given it everything you’ve got, if you haven’t exhausted every shred of potential, do that first. If there’s any chance you can save it, save it. If there’s any love between you and your partner, try to feed it, truly, because having parents who live separately is not easy on children, and if you split, it won’t be easy on you, either. I say this to you as a divorced mom of two small kids. I know so many people in this situation who say, “Children need two happy parents.” Yes, of course that’s ideal, but it’s not that simple or easy.
Children need stability, too. Going back and forth and back and forth takes its toll, it really does. I realize sometimes it can’t be helped. I grew up that way, so I can speak to you about this from inside the experience. It took me over thirty years to feel like I had a home, and that’s something I had to do for myself. It took a lot of healing and a lot of work, and a lot of screwing things up along the way. Relationships where I played out ancient history, trying to get my happy ending, learning all too painfully that’s not the way. Relationships where I was so focused on not being left, I forgot to think about the million other things that matter. The “happy ending” is inside, and it’s not an ending, it’s a daily choice. It’s doable no matter what kind of history you have, of course, but it’s not easy. If you have to split and you have children with your ex, do everything you can to ease the burden and create a schedule that puts their needs first, so they’re not pulled this way and that, week after week, year after year. Ask them what they want if they’re old enough to tell you, and give it heavy consideration. I’m not telling you to let your kids run the show, because that’s no good, either, but they aren’t possessions, they’re people, and they ought to have the feeling that they have some say, that their feelings matter, that they have some power in the way their life looks and feels. Get creative and work together if at all possible. Don’t fight in front of your kids, and don’t ever speak negatively about your ex in front of them.
Kids feel everything, even if they can’t articulate everything they feel. So if you’re in a loveless marriage, they’re feeling that. If you’re allowing yourself to be mistreated or abused, they’re feeling that. You’re teaching them with everything you do, and everything you don’t do. If you split and meet someone new eventually, they’re going to feel that, too. Will it be good for them to see what a healthy, loving relationship looks like? Of course, but along with that comes loyalty issues they’ll have to grapple with, confusing feelings about the new person in mom’s or dad’s life, what it all means for them, and how they fit into the new picture. If they have to go through that again and again, they’ll get cynical. They may worry about their other parent, how they’re feeling about all of it. The last thing you want is for your child to feel they have to take care of you. That’s a scary feeling for a kid, and they won’t thank you for it later. They’ll have to deal with different rules and different energy in each house, with not having all their stuff in one place, with a sense of powerlessness over their comings and goings, with missing one parent when they’re with the other, with chaotic holidays and a fractured life.
I know this is brutal to look at if you’re in turmoil with your marriage, but I think it’s important to face so you really know what’s involved. Think about adults you know who don’t have good relationships with their mothers or fathers. That’s pain that never goes away, and you can’t want that for your kids. Support a healthy relationship between your child or children, and their other parent. Validate their feelings when they tell you they’re sad or angry or confused. Understand you’re trading one set of painful circumstances for another. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it consciously and as well as possible, I’m just letting you know there isn’t a pain-free way. Do I think it’s better for kids to see their parents living authentically, in alignment with what’s true for them? Feeling inspired and grateful about life, fired up about their time here? Of course. I’m just saying, make sure you can’t feel those things in the context of your relationship before you give up on it. Examine your own part and be certain you’ve done all you can to clean up your side of the street before you forge a new path that will affect your children’s paths, too. If you’re steady for them, if you always meet them with love and teach them that home is on the inside, they’ll be fine. Just be sure, that’s all.
As always, facing reality as it is is your best bet. And there’s no avoiding pain in this life, so try not to beat yourself up if you’ve made a mess of things. Sometimes we have to make a huge mess so we get the lesson that what we’re doing isn’t working, and so we develop the tools to do things another way. Longing to be seen and understood, to be wanted and cherished and held are all completely human and beautiful feelings. Love and connection are the best things in life. Sharing and laughter and tears and hugs, and feeling like you’ve got at least one person in this vulnerable thing who’s with you, who gets you, is absolutely understandable, but I don’t think you can find true connection with anyone else until you’ve found it with yourself. So start there if you haven’t already.
Sending you love, as always,