how you know when to end a relationship

Nobody meets with me to talk about sex anymore. Sometime over the last year, my conversations with students have shifted from being about sex to being about relationships. (That is, unless they’re about alcohol, stress, sleep, or any of the myriad other things that fall under “wellness.”)

In the past week, multiple times I’ve talked about The End of Your Relationship. Over and over, the question arises:

How do you know when it’s time to end it?

Because it’s almost never straightforward, is it? You wouldn’t have started the relationship if there weren’t something remarkable about this person, if there weren’t some beautiful potential, some gift they had for making you feel a particular way, if they didn’t seem to fit just right into some notion you had in your head of who a good partner would be.

And especially if you’ve invested a lot in the relationship – a lot of emotional energy, a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of planning the future – you’ve got a lot to lose by ending it.

And always, always, particularly for folks who are gender socialized feminine, there’s that deep, gut-level sense that if a relationship ends, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough, you weren’t adequate, you failed. It’s All Your Fault. You were not, are not, and never will be worthy of a relationship, and you will die alone and unloved. Even when your rational mind knows that’s not true, still your heart might beat with the lub-dub refrain of all heartbreak, “Unloveable. Unworthy. Unloveable. Unworthy.”

So while I have a nice, simple answer to this question of how you know it’s over, I want to preface it by saying that I know it’s never that easy.

Okay, so how do you know?

You know because there is a quiet, still voice inside you, a flip that gets switched inside you, that says you have given all you had to give, and the relationship will never recover.

Though many parts of the relationship seem to be working, there is a critical failure somewhere in its mechanism, and it just stops running. It’s done.

To illustrate, however inadequately, I offer the example of my cat.

This September I had to put my 14 year old cat to sleep. I’ve had her since I was 21, so she lived with me my entire adult life, in a dozen houses and apartments, across three states.

As the end approached, I asked the vet, “How do I know when it’s time?”

And she said, “You’ve known this cat all her life. You’ll know when she’s ready.”

And I thought that meant that I would look into Sugar’s eyes and I would see it there, the readiness, the peace, the letting go. I thought I would see permission in her eyes, and I wanted to wait until I got it.

But that didn’t happen.

What happened was she got worse and worse, her mobility worsened, her organs started to stop functioning. Yet to the end, she would get out of bed, stumble to her food bowl and try to eat, stumble to her water bowl and try to drink, then pee at ever-increasing distances from her litter box, struggling along through the drives of living, each day – and toward the end, each hour – more difficult than the last. And there was a profound beauty there in her struggle, in her essential obliviousness of her own degrading organism; there was, too, a deep, existential humor in her staggering gait and the way she slowly fell over as she peed right in the middle of the floor.

I decided to end it not because I saw a message in her eyes saying she was ready. I decided it was time to end it because I saw the trajectory of the future, and this was as much suffering as I was willing to tolerate for her. I called the vet and put her to sleep before she had to struggle to breathe.

I knew it was time to end it because, like a switch being flipped, it was clear to me that that was it. As much as I loved her, as much as we could have continued various medical treatments to extend her life… that was it. I took her to vet and they put her to sleep, and I knew it was the right thing. Even as part of me wondered what else I could have done, how I could have spotted symptoms sooner, how I could have… so many things… I knew it was right.

Now, there is something straightforward about death that a mere breakup lacks. Once it’s over, it’s over and there is no coming back, whereas with a relationship, that finality is less insistent. Still, when you know it’s over, hold on to that still, quiet voice inside you, that small certainty; in the face of the emotional storm that comes with the end of a relationship, hold fast to that voice, that knowledge. It is right. It’s okay. You don’t have to look into your partner’s eyes and get their permission; relationship don’t work that way, usually. You end it when the flip gets switched, and you just know.