Let us imagine that we know what we want –
to leave a relationship –
but that we are suffering from a problem
which inhibits us from acting on our wishes:
we can’t bear to cause another person pain,
especially another person towards whom
we feel a sense of loyalty,
who has been kind to us,
who looks up to us for their safety and their future,
who has expectations of us
and with whom we might have been planning a trip
to another continent in a few months.
Perhaps we have come near to telling them
on a dozen occasions,
but always pulled back at the last moment.
We tell ourselves that we’ll get around to it ‘after the holidays’,
or ‘once their birthday party is over’,
or ‘next year’, or ‘in the morning’,
and yet the deadlines roll by
and we are still here.
Our discomfort has to do
with the thought of unleashing
an appalling upset:
they will dissolve into tears, there will be sobbing,
which may last a very long time,
there will be wailing, uncontrollable cries
and mountains of wet tissues –
all because of a truth that currently lurks
in the quiet recesses of our cranium.
We will have been responsible for dragging a formerly
competent and independent person into chaos;
it’s more than we can bear.
It sounds peculiar,
but it might almost be better for us
to spend the next few decades unfulfilled
than experience even five minutes
of unbounded upset.
In another part of our minds, there may also be a terror.
More than we realize day to day,
we’re scared of our partner.
By telling them it’s over,
we risk a discharge of titanic anger.
They may scream at us,
accuse us of leading them on,
of being a charlatan and a disgrace.
There might be violence and danger.
There is a certain symmetry to our fears.
We may tell them and by so doing, kill them.
Or we may tell them and they will turn around and kill us;
kill or be killed. No wonder
we put off the news.
The reasonable adult part of our minds knows that
these fears of killing and dying
can’t really be true –
but this may weigh very little
in how we unconsciously feel.
Wielding sensible arguments can at points be
as effective as telling a person with vertigo
that the balcony won’t collapse
or a person with depression
that there are perfectly good grounds to be cheerful.
A lot of the mind is not amenable to hard-headed logic.
In an ancestral part of us,
we simply operate with a sense that
going against the wishes
of a significant person
will mean either endangering their lives or our own.
To explain the origins of such terrors,
childhood is the place to turn,
as it always is when trying to account for
disproportionate and limitless fears.
Perhaps we are the offspring of a fragile parent
whom we loved profoundly
and whom it would have broken our hearts to disappoint.
They might have been struggling with their mental or physical health,
they might have been maltreated by another adult.
Maybe they were relying on us to
hold them back from despair
or justify their whole lives.
We may have derived an early impression
that we had to conform to their idea of us
if we weren’t to cause them grave damage,
that our wishes and needs
could easily have driven them to the edge,
that by being more ourselves,
we might have broken their spirit.
We simply loved them too much,
and at the same time,
felt them to be too weak,
to ask them to take on our reality.
We can be three years old and,
without knowing any of this consciously,
have taken such messages on board.
And as a result, we might then have learnt
to play very quietly,
to reign in our boisterousness or mischievousness,
our aggression or our intelligence,
to be extremely cheerful and helpful around the house,
to be ‘no trouble at all’ towards a beloved adult
who already seemed to have far too much on their plate.
Alternatively, we might have spent
our most vulnerable years around a person
who responded to any frustration
caused by another person
with extreme anger.
It can be hard to appreciate just how terrifying
an enraged adult can seem
to a sensitive two year old.
Another adult might know that
this red-faced figure
of course wasn’t gonna murder anyone,
they’re just letting rip for a while
and will pick up the pieces of a smashed vase soon enough,
but that’s not at all how it can seem
through a child’s eyes.
How are they to know that
this person many times their size
wouldn’t just go one step further
and, at the end of their ranting,
pick up a hammer and smash their skull in?
How can they be certain that
the momentarily genuinely out of control parent
who just broke the door
wouldn’t for that matter throw them out of the window too.
Child murder may be
entirely alien to the furious adult,
but that’s not how it can strike
a sensitive offspring.
One doesn’t have to actually
murder anyone to come across –
to an unformed mind –
as someone who seriously might.
No wonder we might be
a bit scared of sharing
some awkward news.
Our minds are freighted with fears
that stem from things that happened
under precise circumstances long ago
but that continue to have a potent, subterranean,
and immense force
in our lives today.
By taking stock of the past,
the task is to acknowledge that
these fears are very real
but only in a very limited space:
our own minds.
They don’t belong to adult reality.
The catastrophe we fear will happen
has already happened:
we have already experienced someone who seemed to
risk killing themselves if the news grew too bad –
and someone who looked like they were perhaps
going to kill whomever displeased them.
But these issues are firmly located in another era.
We need to take on board
an always unlikely-sounding thought,
we are now adults,
which means, there is a robustness to ourselves
and to our dealings with others.
Another adult is highly
unlikely to collapse on us
and if they do,
there are plenty of measures we can take.
We will know how to help them
cope with their grief, directly and indirectly.
It may seem as if it will never end,
but that is a child’s reasoning,
not an adult’s.
In reality, it will be very bad
for a few hours, or days or weeks,
but then eventually,
as happens, they will get over it.
They will recover their good humor,
they will wake up one morning and
see the world hasn’t ended
and they know how to go on.
Similarly, they won’t actually
try to pick up the nearest axe
and chop us into small pieces.
They may be furious, they may shout,
there may be some ugly words –
but again, we are now tall
and independent, we can get away,
in extremis, we have
the number of the police and a lawyer,
we can let the fury vent,
and like a well-built bridge in a hurricane,
be utterly confident that we can
that will come our way.
To further lend us courage,
we should remember a distinction
between being kind
and seeming kind.
It can look as if the kind thing to do
is never to anger or distress anyone –
and therefore, never to give a person we have loved
But that is to overlook
the more insidious ways in which we can
ruin someone’s life.
To stay with a person because we wish to
avoid a few hours of unpleasantness
is no favor to them –
if we then go on to be bitter, mean,
snide, unfaithful and depressed
变得尖酸 刻薄 抑郁 不忠
around them for the next few decades.
We’re not helping someone by
sparing them a bad break up scene,
if we then deliver a life-long
A surprising amount of the misery of the world
comes from people being overly keen to appear kind,
or rather, who are too cowardly
to cause others short term pain.
The truly courageous way to leave
is to allow ourselves to be hated for a while
by someone who still loves us.
We shouldn’t imagine that
they will never find anyone else like us:
they may believe it now
and might even sweetly tell us so.
But they won’t believe it
when they finally understand
who we are.
Real kindness means getting out –
even though the holiday has been booked,
the apartment paid for
and the wedding arranged.
There’s nothing wrong with and nothing dangerous
about deciding someone isn’t for us.
There is something very wrong
with ruining large chunks of someone else’s life
while we squeamishly or fearfully hesitate to get out of the way.
Deciding whether to stay in or leave a relationship
is one of the trickiest and
most consequential decisions we can face.
Our stay or leave card game
can help us towards an answer.
Click now to learn more.