I was hardwired to be loyal. I am not one to walk away. I realized at 48, which was only 4 years ago, that I didn’t even know how. I was in a difficult partnership at work and I was talking with my therapist about it. I had some boundaries I wanted to add to the partnership, and I suspected it would end the relationship. While I was not afraid to challenge someone, I felt a responsibility to never push too hard. I knew the boundaries I needed would feel like a hard push to my partner.
My therapist asked me, “Do you want to continue to work with this person as things currently are?” I couldn’t say no. I danced around the question by talking about how our strengths really complemented each other. I talked about how much I had already invested. I talked about the potential. My therapist was patient yet kept bringing me back to this question. Finally, once I was out of reasons for why I needed to keep trying, I started to cry. “No, I don’t,” I said. The relief I felt was immediate. Honesty, even brutal honesty, tends to do that.
We continued to talk about why I was having such a hard time. I felt responsible to make this partnership work. “If I could, I should” was clearly my motto. But the bottom line, I discovered, was quite simple. I was allowed to say, “Enough.” I was allowed to say, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I needed to learn how.
I didn’t walk away from that partnership. He walked away from me. But I learned a big lesson through that experience. I don’t have to stay in relationships that are harmful to me mentally, emotionally or spiritually.
I’m still not one to walk away. But I am learning that I can and sometimes should. I have learned how to add boundaries earlier in the relationship rather than waiting until I’m so depleted that I’m withering.
We tend to walk away too quickly in our culture. Relationships end because we want something better. Jobs are traded because we feel under appreciated. Traditions are abandoned because they take too much time. But even still, I wonder: Do we know how or when to end things well? A coworker once described counseling couples whose marriage had died but neither was willing to admit it. “It’s like watching them drag this carcass around that is their marriage, this heavy rotting flesh of a carcass, as they continue to assert that they just want to make it work. There is no resurrecting that carcass.” That’s a powerful visual. And not just for marriage, but for any relationship. How many times have I been carrying a rotting, stinky carcass just because I felt the responsibility to make the relationship work? There is no “making it work” when the relationship has become that carcass.
Yes there are times we need to stay in something even though it’s difficult. But there are times we need to walk away because there is so much more at stake than the relationship itself. I’m learning to distinguish between the two. Because when the relationship has died, it does no good to anyone to keep dragging that carcass around.