How to Decide When to End a Long-term Relationship

August 15th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

Relationships are among of the most complex aspects of our lives, particularly long-term relationships such as marriage. Your relationships can elevate you to new heights or drag you down into the dumps.

But what if you’re somewhere in the middle?

What if your relationship is pretty good, like a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10? Should you stay, openly committing to that relationship for life? Or should you leave and look for something better, something that could become even better?

This is the dreadful state of ambivalence. You simply aren’t sure one way or the other. Maybe what you have is good enough and you’d be a fool to abandon it in search of a new relationship you may never find. Or maybe you’re seriously holding yourself back from finding a truly fulfilling relationship that would serve you well the rest of your life. Tough call.

Fortunately, there’s an excellent book that provides an intelligent process for overcoming relationship ambivalence. It’s called Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay by Mira Kirshenbaum. I read this book many years ago, and it completely changed how I think about long-term relationships.

First, the book points out the wrong way to make this decision. The wrong way is to use a balance-scale approach, attempting to weigh the pros and cons of staying vs. leaving. Of course, that’s what everyone does. Weighing the pros and cons seems logical, but it doesn’t provide you with the right kind of information you need to make this decision. There will be pros and cons in every relationship, so how do you know if yours are fatal or tolerable or even wonderful? The cons tell you to leave, while the pros tell you to stay. Plus you’re required to predict future pros and cons, so how are you going to predict the future of your relationship? Who’s to say if your problems are temporary or permanent?

Kirshenbaum’s solution is to dump the balance-scale approach and use a diagnostic approach instead. Diagnose the true status of your relationship instead of trying to weigh it on a scale. This will provide you the information you need to make an intelligent decision and to know precisely why you’re making it. If you’re ambivalent, it means your relationship is sick. So discovering the precise nature of the disease seems an intelligent place to begin.

In order to perform a relationship diagnosis, the author offers a series of 36 yes/no questions to ask yourself. Each question is explained very thoroughly with several pages of text. In fact, the diagnostic procedure is essentially the whole book.

Each question is like passing your relationship through a filter. If you pass the filter, you proceed to the next question. If you don’t pass the filter, then the recommendation is that you end your relationship. In order to achieve the recommendation that you should stay together, you must pass through all 36 filters. If even one filter snags you, the recommendation is to leave.

This isn’t as brutal as it sounds though because most of these filters will be very easy for you to pass. My guess is that out of the 36 questions, less than a third will require much thought. Hopefully you can pass filters like, “Does your partner beat you?” and “Is your partner leaving the country for good without you?” without much trouble. If not, you don’t need a book to tell you your relationship is going downhill.

The author’s recommendations are based on observing the post-decision experiences of multiple couples who either stayed together or broke up after suffering from a state of ambivalence related to one of the 36 questions. The author then watched how those relationships turned out in the long run. Did the person making the stay-or-leave decision feel s/he made the correct choice years later? If the couple stayed together, did the relationship blossom into something great or decline into resentment? And if they broke up, did they find new happiness or experience everlasting regret over leaving?

I found this concept extremely valuable, like being able to turn the page of time to see what might happen. The recommendations are based on the author’s observations and her professional opinion, so I don’t recommend you take her advice blindly. However, I personally found all of her conclusions utterly sensible and didn’t find any surprises. I doubt you’ll be terribly surprised to read that a relationship with a drug user is virtually doomed to failure. But what about a relationship with someone you don’t respect? What about a long-distance relationship? Or a relationship with a workaholic who makes 10x your income? Would you like to know how such relationships tend to work out if the couple stays together vs. if they break up?

Kirshenbaum explains that where a break-up is recommended, it’s because most people who chose to stay together in that situation were unhappy, while most people who left were happier for it. So long-term happiness is the key criteria used, meaning the happiness of the individual making the stay-or-leave decision, not the (ex-)partner.

If you’re facing a “too good to leave, too bad to stay” dilemma, I highly recommend this book. You’ll breeze through most of the filters, but you’ll probably hit a few that snag you and really make you think. But I recommend this book not just for people who aren’t sure about the status of their relationship but also those with healthy relationships who want to make it even better. This book will help you diagnose the weak points of your relationship that could lead to break-up and allow you to consciously attend to them.

Here are some diagnostic points from the book you may find valuable (these are my summaries, not the author’s exact words):

  1. If God or some divine being told you it was OK to leave your relationship, would you feel relieved that you could finally leave? If your religion is the only reason you’re still together, your relationship is already long dead. Drop the self-torturing beliefs and choose happiness. Living together physically but not in your heart isn’t going to fool any divine being anyway, nor is it likely to fool anyone else around you. Leave the hypocrisy behind, and take off.
  2. Are you able to get your needs met in the relationship without too much difficulty? If it takes too much effort to get your needs met, then your relationship is doing you more harm than good. Leave.
  3. Do you genuinely like your partner, and does your partner seem to genuinely like you? If you don’t mutually like each other, you don’t belong together.
  4. Do you feel a unique sexual attraction to your partner? If there’s no spark, there’s no point in staying.
  5. Does your partner exhibit any behavior that makes the relationship too difficult for you to stay in, and do you find your partner is either unwilling or incapable of changing? Results matter far more than intentions. If your partner behaves in a way that’s intolerable to you, then permanent change is a must, or you need to leave. Example: “Quit smoking for good in 30 days, or I’m gone.” Trying to tolerate the intolerable will only erode your self-esteem, and you’ll see yourself as stronger in the past than in the present.
  6. Do you see yourself when you look in your partner’s eyes? A metaphor… if you don’t sense a strong compatibility with your partner, you’re better off with someone else.
  7. Do you and your partner each respect each other as individuals? No mutual respect = time to leave.
  8. Does your partner serve as an important resource for you in a way that you care about? If your partner does little to enhance your life and you wouldn’t lose anything important to you by leaving, then leave. You’ll break even by being on your own and gain tremendously by finding someone else who is a resource to you.
  9. Does your relationship have the demonstrated capacity for forgiveness? If you can’t forgive each other’s transgressions, then resentment will gradually replace love. Leave.
  10. Do you and your partner have fun together? A relationship that’s no fun is dead. Leave.
  11. Do you and your partner have mutual goals and dreams for your future together? If you aren’t planning to spend your future together, something’s terribly wrong. Take off.

These questions drive home the point that a relationship should enhance your life, not drain it. At the very least, you should be happier in the relationship than outside it. Even if a break-up leads to a messy divorce with complex custody arrangements, Kirshenbaum points out that in many situations, that can still lead to long-term happiness whereas staying in a defunct relationship almost surely prevents it.

Some of the diagnostic points might seem overly harsh in terms of recommending leaving in situations you might find salvageable. A relationship, however, requires the effort and commitment of both partners. One person can’t carry it alone. Even though you might come through with a miraculous save (such as by turning around an abusive relationship), such attempts are usually doomed to failure, and even where they succeed, they may take such a tremendous toll that you ultimately feel they weren’t worth the effort. You could be much happier in a new relationship (or living alone) instead of investing so much time trying to save a relationship that’s dragging you down. You’ll do a lot more good giving yourself to someone who’s more receptive to what you have to offer and who genuinely appreciates you for it. If you’re spending your relationship fighting resistance more than sharing love, you’re probably better off letting it go and embracing a relationship that will provide greater mutual rewards for less work.

You may find it revealing to apply these diagnostic questions to a broader set of human relationships, such as your relationships with your boss and co-workers. Perhaps you can skip the sexual attraction one… but mutual respect, fun, shared goals, tolerable behavior, getting your needs met, etc. all apply perfectly well to career-oriented relationships. For example, if your boss avoids you when you try to discuss your future with the company, I’d say that’s a very bad sign for one of you.

Don’t confuse the question of whether or not you should leave your current relationship with how you might find a new relationship. If it’s clear that your current relationship should end, then end it. Once you’re on your own again, then you can (re)develop the skills needed to attract a new partner. It’s unlikely you’ll be in a place to assess your chances of entering a new relationship while you’re still in one. For one, everyone around you will perceive you as unavailable while you’re still in a relationship, so you won’t be able to get a clear sense of where you stand until you’re free of that.

A proper diagnosis may also convince you that your relationship is indeed too good to leave. That situation may last your entire life, or it may change at some point. You can’t control all the variables. But at least you’ll have a method for deciding if you can commit to your relationship in the present moment or if you should be making plans to end it.

In any relationship, choose at the very least to achieve your own happiness.


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