From the age of caveman courtship to our modern times of digital dating, humans have turned to their relationships for companionship, support and security. In some cases, even survival. Because human contact is an instinctual necessity, according to evolutionary psychologists.
And, though we’ve evolved as a species, our craving for loving, meaningful connection is as powerful as ever. Because, whether sharing delicious meals with our families, gut-laughing over inside jokes with our best friends, planning sun-swept escapes with our plus one, or swapping our most ambitious plans and dreams with our virtual circles, science has shown that our relationships either enhance or dampen our health, mindset and mood.
So, what do you do when a relationship turns icky and sour? Or, worse, maybe you’re realizing it was never a good thing, but you wanted it so much that you couldn’t admit the truth…until now.
If you’re coming to feel that a relationship is hindering your happiness, or if you’re simply itching for some habits and patterns within your bond to change, read on. Relationships of every kind function under a series of contractual terms and conditions, even if unspoken. Which means it might be time to consider if a renewal, a renegotiation or an expiration is on the table…
Yes, every relationship is a contract–one with terms and conditions…
We each bring a unique worldview, formed from a rolodex of biases, insecurities, traumas and privileges (or lack thereof), to every relationship we build. This determines how we show up, as well as how we assume others will up. The marriage of these perspectives creates the terms of the relationship.
Even if the individual parties expect them to play out in different ways.
For example, there’s the parent who might find purpose in acting as their adult child’s rescuer, expecting to forever be needed and called upon. But when their child decides to start governing themselves–no longer asking for permission to buy the house or book the flight or move across the coast, the parent might perceive that they’ve been wounded–perhaps discarded. Even if their child is simply trying to become who they are.
Or, there’s the person who finds confidence by being the leader of their pack– taking charge of organizing dinner plans and orchestrating trips. Except their friends secretly resent the expectation to always follow their lead, perceiving their take-charge attitude as overbearing. This might create an atmosphere of tension, even if the disgruntled parties never formally object.
…which means you’re saying “yes” to everything you tolerate.
If you’re tolerating something in a relationship, no matter how much it makes you scoff with annoyance or fume with anger, you’re agreeing to it.
Like, say, the meddling in-law who causes you to hiss under your breath every time they pry with inappropriate questions, the boss who makes subtle digs about your skill level and the deceptive lover who vanishes without explanation for days on end.
Whether the communication is outlined and made clear or not, you’re agreeing to the terms of a relationship every time you don’t speak up about what you need. You’re nodding “yes” to even the things that break your heart.
Lori Harder, Founder of Drink Lite Pink and bestselling author of A Tribe Called Bliss: Break Through Superficial Friendships, Create Real Connections, Reach Your Highest Potential agrees, stressing that manipulation only happens when you don’t uphold your boundaries. “Always be clear with yourself about what you’re tolerating in a relationship, and then exhaust all realms of communication about the things that need to change. Because if you aren’t candid with yourself and with the other person, you’ll end up folding and compromising yourself over and over again,” she says.
Start by assessing the climate of the relationship.
Is there a spirit of distrust or hostility in your relationship, or does it feel easy, safe and light? Are there patterns of blissful highs followed by heart-crushing lows, or does your time together glide along in a smooth, even terrain? Do your efforts ever feel lopsided, or are you in a dance of give-and-take?
Whether lovers or siblings, there’s a climate that’s formed in every relationship, and it sets the overarching tone–from the ways each party expresses and receives care and affection to the knee-jerk reactions they call upon.
The good news? While extraordinarily challenging, experts say that cleaning up the climate of a relationship is totally impossible, so long as both parties are equally willing to leave the door ajar for understanding and compromise.
Sometimes it’s not that a person is toxic, but that the terms are toxic…
There’s so much talk about nixing toxic people from our lives. You’ve probably seen those memes circulating on Pinterest or social media–the ones that chirp about the necessity of purging those poisonous souls from our social circles. And, while that’s certainly valid in some cases, sometimes the problem is not so much that a person is toxic, but that the individuals bring out underlying toxicities in each other.
Two parties might suffer from the same vices or struggle with similar weaknesses, forging a bond that’s dangerously off balance. So, with this in mind, if you’re in a toxic relationship right now, it might mean that you need something different–perhaps something that’ll mirror the most radiant, hopeful angles of yourself.
Before you end a relationship, examine yourself.
Might the relationship feel icky or lopsided because you’re bringing a world of assumptions and expectations to it–ones the other party never signed up for? Perhaps ones they don’t have the capacity or power to fulfill? Or, might you be failing to communicate effectively?
I once had an explosive falling out with a friend. When I received a furious email from her, the problem became clear to me: she’d been operating from a universe of romanticized expectations that I’d failed to meet–ones where I was her savior, her rock, her most mothering friend. Except I’d never agreed to meet those expectations and didn’t have the power to fulfill them. Those fanciful ideals were bound to crash and burn eventually.
From my view, I felt like I’d excelled at my role–acting as a sounding board for hours, loving her endlessly and shouting her worthiness. Yet, it seemed that every small misstep was shoved under a microscope and taken personally. After months of tension, the inflammatory email was the nail in the friendship’s coffin. From my gaze, she’d taken my love for granted and I was 50 shades of done–or so I thought.
I later realized that we’d both played a role in the friendship’s demise. On her end, she’d expected a level of counsel and solace that I was incapable of giving, misdirecting frustrations from other areas of her life onto me, but on my end, I’d failed to properly articulate my boundaries and needs. I’d dropped the ball when it came to setting clear limitations and unpacking my feelings in a calm and respectfully assertive way.
The beautiful news is that we eventually reunited, being transparent about our individual shortcomings, learning to communicate our perspectives openly and “renegotiating” our roles within the friendship. But our reunion wouldn’t have been possible had we not valued the friendship enough to revisit the relationship’s terms. And what a shame that would have been.
…but don’t let your emotions keep you bound to a contract that needs to end.
A few years ago, I interviewed a television personality for a magazine story. Our connection was instant, effortless and soulful. Months later, after forming a kinship over email and text, she approached me about co-authoring her memoir. I was immediately captivated by the opportunity. Having been approached about various book projects, none had lit me up like hers. I adored and respected her, we saw the world through similar lenses, and I knew that the only obvious answer was a resounding “yes.” One with an exclamation point behind it. Contracts were drawn up and I signed my name with glee.
During the early days of the process, my body buzzed each time an audio message from her landed in my email inbox. I spent hours transcribing, conceptualizing, shaping up the narratives and making them sing. Our excitement was delicious and tangible. I often visualized the two of us, side by side on Wendy Williams’ couch, reflecting on the early days of putting it all together. “You are the person to write this book,” she often gushed.
But, as we traveled deeper into the project, and as my career further blossomed, and as I fell pregnant and became a first-time mom to a colicky newborn, and as she continued to move through her own personal and professional progressions in beautiful and celebrated ways, I began to wonder if maybe I wasn’t her girl. And I was losing my spark to see it through.
I was trying so hard not to know this. I’d poured my most impassioned creative energies into the book and believed in its message. But the truth was wagging wildly in my face: our synergy was barely hanging on for dear life.
Our voices didn’t mesh. Our schedules didn’t align. Our careers were pulling us down distant paths. Sometimes it felt as though we were fumbling through the dark in a maze of inspirations, failing to link arms. And, then it started to feel as though we were shouting at each other from opposite ends of the world, determined to still be heard, yet unable to get our messages across. There was dissonance and distance where there had once been harmony and volume.
It was like that feeling you get once you know a lover isn’t your “happily ever after,” but you gave so much of yourself to the relationship that the thought of throwing in the towel makes you want to ugly-cry into your pillow. I longed to pour my energy into other endeavors that were tugging at my hair, but there was also this lingering, “What if…what if we can get back to where we were?” I also didn’t want to let her down.
One morning, while driving to a doctor’s appointment, the project began weighing on my psyche. The pandemic had put a temporary freeze on the publishing industry, so I hadn’t sent out queries in a couple of months, but things were starting to open back up. The thought of returning to the venture made me cringe with dread. Alone in my car, I said aloud, “I want to be freed from this. I know it’s the right thing for both of us.”
Hours later, my phone buzzed. Her name lit up on the screen. I exhaled slowly, answered the call, and greeted her cheerfully. We chatted for a few minutes, skirting around the one topic that we both knew needed to be addressed. After a moment, she asked, “I was wondering if maybe we could break our contract?”
My jaw nearly hit the sofa. I’d sent out a request into the ether that had proven to be magical, and I was primed and ready to rejoice. But, you know what else? I also felt a flicker of sadness. Because, though I was raring to pop a bottle of champagne and throw a party for my newfound freedom, I was also releasing something that had meant a lot to me at one time. I was letting go of something I’d once loved.
And that’s the point. Don’t let your time investments or emotional attachments trick you. Know when your pull toward something–whether it be an endeavor or a relationship–is not an indication of what’s best for your future. Know when you’re resisting.
Your job in this life is to be a loyal and obedient steward of your truth. No matter how much time you’ve invested, or how many hopes and dreams you’ve folded into something. So please, know when it’s time to end a contract and get on with your life.
In some cases, ending a relationship means saving yourself…
If you need to end a relationship with someone, it doesn’t mean you’re a monster. Perhaps you’ve evolved in your perception of the world and soared into new and better beliefs about what’s possible. Or, maybe the other person has changed in ways that renders the two of you standing at impossible odds.
I once had a boyfriend who verbally assaulted me each time I tried to break up with him. He’d shout, “Quitter! Quitter!” His pendulum swung from accusing me of caring about no one but myself, to professing undying exaltation and remorse for never having been worthy of me in the first place. He once threatened suicide, sending me a long and lamenting email that ended with, “I’ll see you on the other side, beautiful…”
I won’t deny that his guilt tactics kept me in the relationship far past its expiration date. And that was the saddest part of it all. Because ,while the best relationships are maintained out of mutual affection and understanding–whether romantic, platonic or professional, there are some that keep one or both parties locked in by way of entrapment, guilt and manipulation. And that’s the epitome of violating.
Despite my ex’s resistance, quitting that relationship proved to be the kindest decision I ever made for myself. Because, if I hadn’t admitted, once and for all, that the terms and conditions of that relationship were shrinking my psyche and strangling my soul, and if I hadn’t ripped up that contract, I wouldn’t have regained my sanity, or met my husband, or had my daughter, or forged the self-belief to build a career I love. And, hey, chances are sky-high that you probably wouldn’t be reading these words right now either. Which is also to say that, sometimes, ending a relationship means saving your own life. Maybe someone else’s, too.
Because the most important relationship you’ll ever have is you…
I’m a firm believer in the virtues of commitment and loyalty, but not if it means putting your well-being in harm’s way. You don’t owe another person your body, your time, your thoughts or your commitment if it means betraying yourself. You only owe others the compassionate willingness to let them be who they are.
Which brings me to the point: if having a relationship with someone endangers your personal evolution or safety, if it forces a muzzle over your joy and truth, that person doesn’t belong in your life no matter how much you’ve loved or given or invested.
You’re the longest human relationship you’ll ever have. The most significant “happily ever after” you could ever lose. The most worthy contract you could ever break. All of your other relationships, no matter how meaningful and sacred, fall under its authority. So, honor and protect the contracts you love, and keep your word to the best of your ability. Be fair and honest, without reservation. But, ultimately, know when it’s time to renew, renegotiate…or walk away.