I recently wrote a post on Instagram about the pain and confusion of trying to decide whether to stay in or leave an intimate relationship. I encouraged those who are at a relational crossroads to honor the complexity of a decision like this and eschew the allure that easy answers exist somewhere, yet to be discovered. The post received quite a bit of traction, and I was moved by the support people offered each other in the comments section.
I decided to tap into the collective wisdom of the community by posing this follow up question: “If you’ve stood at a relational crossroads, what helped you get clear?” This community of 76,000+ people from around the world shared hundreds of heartfelt reflections. I ran an informal “qualitative factor analysis” and identified ten themes. Below you will samples of each themes, edited only for clarity.
If you, or someone you love, is standing at a fork in the road, trying to discern whether to remain in a romantic relationship or leave, I hope these perspectives offer direction, validation, and/or a clear path to the choices that feel most aligned. Take only the suggestions that resonate for you and leave the rest behind!
Focus on Your Values
A lot of people highlighted the need to turn their attention inward, to reflect on who they are and what matters most to them.
- Asking myself the question, “Am I showing up to the relationship the way I should?”
- What version of myself do I want to be? That’s really what different partners bring out in us.
- I stopped focusing on partner and asked myself if I could be who I wanted to be in the relationship.
- It is 10 months in after husband’s affair. I am trying to stay and build back better than it ever was. The key is working on ME first, more than ever before. I am working on me to know if I still want US. If it is worth all the excruciating efforts to work on us and forgiving him. I am trying to figure out if I want the US that I am starting to see.
- Focusing on my core values. I’m such a fighter for our own integrity.
- What are my values? Does this relationship support and enable me to live according to them?
- Realizing that sometimes it’s simply a choice, not a ‘wrong choice’ or a ‘right choice,’ and that it was in my hands to make a beautiful future from that choice.
Assess the Relationship Climate
Many respondents talked about taking an honest look at the quality of the relationship.
- Early on, I ask what he wants. If there’s no alignment, I politely move on. It gets easier.
- Pay attention to how the relationship feels most of the time. What is. Not potential.
- Deciding on non-negotiables.
- Acknowledgement of lack of feelings/attraction for him.
- Observing how he was showing up for others, as well as for me.
- What helped me leave was realizing the patterns in behavior and the old saying, “Actions speak louder than words.”
- I reflect on how I feel looking at the person.
- If you feel dread/fear/negativity more than joy/laughter/love, it’s time to leave.
- When I’ve shared my doubts, if the other person isn’t willing to engage in the conversation, I don’t hesitate to go.
- Are we both willing to do the hard work? Are our core values aligned? Can we be humble
- Love. Knowing we have true, passionate love that can’t be found elsewhere. But love alone isn’t enough, so now we are working on our communication, attachment, etc.
- Asking myself, “Is our relationship built on trust, respect, kindness, and generosity?”
- How I feel in their presence on a daily basis: dimmed or brighter?
Listen to the Wisdom of Your Body
Many people moved out of their heads and into their bodies.
- Getting still and quiet and dropping into what my body is feeling.
- Listen to your intuition.
- Trusting myself– that I will know when it’s truly time to end it.
- Listening to my inner voice in silence. It screamed, “Get the hell out of here!”
- Noticing how thoughts of staying/going feel in my body rather than over-intellectualizing.
- Tuning into my higher self. The best choice does not require self-abandonment.
- The feeling of relief after making the decision. That told me that I was making the right decision.
- Getting back in touch with myself through meditation and yoga so that fear and emotions aren’t running the show.
- Exercise and therapy.
- Listening to my gut.
Focus on “Future You”
Some people imagined the next chapters of their stories and used that to guide them.
- I imagined myself 5 years in the future and asked, “Do I want to the same life for myself then?”
- “Do I see a future with this person?” I didn’t so I ended my 4-year relationship a few months ago.
- I thought where I wanted to be in five years. Still stuck at the crossroads?
- I asked myself, “Would your future self say that you upheld your values?”
- I tried to envision myself 5 or 10 years down the road with my decision.
Attend to Alarm Clock Moments
A number of people described a moment or incident that created clarity.
- The way I was treated became unbearable and I was no longer able to justify it to myself.
- Driving to his place, realizing I didn’t want to spend more than 30 minutes alone with him.
- Getting pregnant shook me awake. I couldn’t set a good example and raise a human with that man.
- Asking for help during the most vulnerable time but called selfish because I asked.
- I just ended a 5-year relationship after a year of ambivalence. Being ambivalent for so long was the sign I should go.
Lean on People You Trust
Several people talked about the people who were in their corner, holding up mirrors so they could understand themselves more deeply.
- My therapists and friends asking me about my deadline, which gave me clarity that it was time to move on.
- A friend asked, “On your best day with him, how do you feel about yourself?”
- I asked my sister for outside perspective. Sometimes I can’t see the forest.
- I listened to advice from people whose relationships I admired.
Some people found it helpful to be methodical and determined.
- Being engaged in learning more
- Knowing I’ve done everything I can.
- Turning every stone (this process takes time).
Some people described letting go of the need for control and allowing the confusion to work its way through them.
- Sitting with myself, taking as much time as I need, journaling.
- Reflecting on my quick impulse to want to leave and how I got to the crossroads.
- The third option: consciously deciding not to decide. The answer shows up when ready.
- Radical acceptance of the ambivalence and therapy to explore what’s behind it.
- Using a dialectic approach. I feel X and I also feel Y.
- We will only leave when the pain of staying is greater than the pain of leaving.
Honor the Relationship Between You and You
For some people, it was becoming aware of the ways in which they had abandoned themselves that helped them make a decision.
- Realizing that I was ashamed of still being with someone who I knew wasn’t for me.
- Realizing I wasn’t being the authentic version of myself and I couldn’t live a discount version of my life.
- I chose to really live and feel the pain instead of living my survival story and suffering in a toxic relationship.
- Putting myself first.
- Being OK and not guilty with being self-focused with decisions during this time.
- I left an 8-year relationship and said, “You’ve got one of two choices, stay or go and start over.” It was the hardest decision, but it was ultimately the best choice, and my happiness/mental health mattered more.
- Actually listening to myself and what I wanted instead of listening to others’ opinions.
- If it’s not honoring myself, or if it’s no longer a hell yes, it’s a no.
- Instead of focusing on “what ifs,” I focus on my needs TODAY.
- In French, we say “mieux seul que mal accompagne,” better alone than in bad company.
Shift Your Perspective
Some people found this hypothetical situation to be helpful.
- Being asked if I would be happy if my kids were in this kind of relationship.
- I asked myself if I would want my daughter to have this kind of relationship. Instant clarity.
Note: I am including this theme because it showed up in a number of responses, but as a therapist, I have mixed feelings about the value of this particular mental exercise because parents project so much onto their children, for better or for worse. I’d like to propose these perspective-shifting questions instead:
- If my best friend was in this intimate relationship, what would I want for him/her/them?
- To what degree does this intimate relationship allow me to be the parent I want to be?
- What kind of relationship template am I modeling for my kids?
Bonus Reflection Questions
Some respondents just offered questions that they had found helpful on their journeys. Here they are:
- Do I see myself sharing life’s joys and challenges with this person?
- Do I reeeeally adore him?
- Are my needs being met?
- Can someone love them better?
- How does it feel?
- Is it healthy?
- Is it toxic?
- Am I happy?
- Is he happy?
- Do they communicate their truth to me?
- Can they hold space for me?
- Is giving a(nother) try worth it?
- Asking myself, If all the issues were “fixed,” would I stay?
- Am I coming from a place of fear or love?
- Which road leads me to more of the life I want?
- What would you regret more? Staying or leaving?
- Is it great, or is it great relative to how you normally feel with him?
For all of the worries we have about the impact of social media on our lives, it is also a beautiful portal to support and community. Although the experience of relational ambivalence is idiosyncratic and private, there is comfort in knowing you are not the first, the last, or the only person who has sat with uncertainty.