A woman I know well -- we'll call her my sister -- took three years to break up with her boyfriend.
She knew it had to happen; they fought all the time, he didn't treat her the way she wanted to be treated and he didn't get along with her kids. But still, they put themselves through years of unnecessary pain, unwilling or unable to step away.
That's the horrific thing about breakups -- often nothing's black-and-white. When our hearts are well and truly given, they can fight hard against ending a relationship that our brains may insist isn't good for us. And even if we're not deeply in love, it can be hard to walk away from something, however imperfect, when loneliness is the other option.
If you're beginning to realize the relationship you're in is headed for a dead end, here are a few guideposts to help get you through the worst of it.
1. If the ship is sailing without you, don't jump off the dock and try to swim after it.
Has your partner checked out of the relationship? Pay attention to the subtle signs and gut feelings that tell you when that's happening -- and reevaluate your willingness to fight to hold on to someone who's clearly letting go of you. Sometimes all you have left is your dignity. Hang on to it.
2. If you know an amputation is required, chop, don't saw.
Whether your partner is instigating things or you are, if you know a breakup is imminent, don't draw it out -- end it. A relationship that's mortally wounded can either end cleanly, directly and as kindly as possible... or it can limp along, growing ever more diseased, until the festering wound threatens to destroy every good memory, along with your self-esteem and peace of mind. Either way, the diseased limb has to come off. Make it quick and let the healing start.
3. Once the Coke machine starts to tip, just get out of the way.
Repeated breaking up and making up is a sign that a relationship is in for a crash. The more times things tip out of balance, the more you chisel away at a steady foundation -- and your mental health. If the Coke machine is rocking, it's going over -- don't stand close enough to get crushed.
4. If you're a crack addict, stay away from the crack den.
There's a reason they call love a drug -- the feelings and physiological reactions love engenders in us have been proven to be almost identical to the reactions of addicts when exposed to (or in withdrawal from) their drug of choice. Once you finally break off a relationship with someone who is your Kryptonite, avoid them -- and all the places you know you'll see them, and even all the people who were part of your life with them. It doesn't have to be forever; just till you kick the habit. Luckily, unlike most addictions, the addictive draw wears off... eventually.
5. If you're out of ammunition, get out of the foxhole.
Don't expect to bounce right back after a major breakup -- even if you instigated it. Be kind to yourself, and give yourself time to heal from the pain and the anger and the disappointment of dashed hopes. (If you didn't think there was potential there, you wouldn't have stayed in the relationship in the first place, right?) Fresh off a heartbreak isn't the time to start a new relationship, make a huge lifestyle change or push yourself to "get back to normal" too quickly. You need time to retreat and reload.
Above all, be patient. There's nothing easy about a breakup -- the only way through it is through it. But when my sister finally ended her relationship, she told me she immediately felt lighter, like she'd had a pressing weight lifted off her. When you finally summon the strength to break out of the wrong relationship, you may be surprised by how liberating it can be.
Phoebe Fox is the author of the Breakup Doctor series from Henery Press; Bedside Manners, book two in the series, releases this week. You can find her at www.phoebefoxauthor.com, and have news and relationship advice delivered right to your in-box here. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.
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