Guilt keeps many people stuck in dysfunctional or codependent relationships because they prioritize other people’s needs and happiness above their own.
Generally, we hope or expect that relationships will last forever. We idealize close family ties, soulmates, and decades-long friendships. But sometimes this unrealistic expectation – that our relationships should last forever -- keeps us connected to people long after the relationship has run its course.
Perhaps some relationships only need to last for a season and when they’ve stopped growing and enriching our lives, it’s time to let them go.
Not all relationships last a lifetime -- and that’s okay
Take a look at the troubled relationships described below and see if you can relate to either of them.
Long-time friends Rachel and Janelle have been through a lot together. They’ve anchored each other through teenage angst, countless boyfriends, the birth of their children, and the end of Rachel’s marriage. But now, in their 40’s, they seem to have little in common – except a shared past. Rachel feels drained by Janelle’s constant need for reassurance. She’s tried to be a good listener and sounding board, but Janelle responds to her empathy with abrupt, judgmental comments. Rachel feels guilty about ignoring Janelle’s texts, but she also knows talking to Janelle leaves her feeling hurt and angry. Maintaining their friendship feels like a chore.
“What do you mean you’re not coming for Thanksgiving?” Isaac’s mother cries into the phone. “Mom,” he replies. “Mel and I have decided it’s too much for us to travel this year. The kids are too young and the virus is still a worry.” Isaac knew his mother wouldn’t respond well and had been dreading this call. His mother was sobbing uncontrollably now, “You’ve ruined the holidays! I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. I thought you loved me.” Isaac’s father overheard and took the phone from his mother. “You’ve made your mother cry!” he said sternly. “She wants you to come for Thanksgiving and you’re going to do it. So help me God, if you don’t call next week and tell her you’ve bought plane tickets, I’ll come to your house myself and beat your ass. And you know I will, Isaac.” His father hung up abruptly.
When is it time to end a relationship?
Friends and family should bring positive qualities like support, laughter, fun, and empathy into your life – at least most of the time. Yes, conflict is a part of every relationship and an occasional disagreement doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed. When differences of opinion and hurt feelings are dealt with openly and respectfully, they can make relationships stronger.
So, how do you know when a relationship has crossed the line into unhealthy territory? Here are a few signs that a relationship is more harmful than healthy.
Signs of an unhealthy relationship
- You have recurring arguments that never get resolved.
- Spending time with them feels like an obligation rather than a pleasure.
- You feel like you can’t be yourself around them.
- They aren’t genuinely interested in you, your life, your goals, your interests, etc.
- They don’t respect your boundaries.
- They use guilt to try to get what they want from you.
- They routinely take more than they give. They aren’t supportive and willing to help you.
- You walk on eggshells around them, fearful of upsetting or disappointing them.
- They are demanding, mean, harsh, critical, or gossip about you (even after you’ve asked them to stop and explained how hurtful their behavior is).
- They betrayed or hurt you in a major way and haven’t apologized, taken responsibility, or changed.
- You feel like you’ve grown apart. You no longer have much in common in terms of interests or values.
Ending a relationship is a big decision. It’s painful to recognize that a relationship can’t be salvaged and that your life would be more peaceful without this person in it. You can use the questions that follow to help you figure out whether it’s time to end a relationship (or take a break or distance yourself).
Assessing your relationship
- Do I look forward to seeing or talking to them?
- Do I have fun when we get together?
- What positive things does this relationship add to my life?
- Do I feel respected and appreciated by them?
- Can I count on them to be there for me?
- Does spending time with them bring out the best in me?
- Is there a mutual give and take in this relationship or do I feel like I’m doing all the giving?
- Have I expressed my concerns? What have I done to try to improve our relationship? Is it possible for the relationship to be saved?
- How long have I felt this way? How long have these issues been going on?
- What would my life be like if I had less contact with them?
You can also read more about “relationship red flags” here.
How to end a relationship without feeling guilty
First and foremost, ending a relationship doesn’t make you a bad person. Your primary responsibility is to yourself – to do what’s right for you and keep yourself safe and healthy.
Of course, sometimes, other people have conflicting needs. However, it’s not fair or realistic for other adults to expect that you’ll consistently put them first and compromise your needs or values to make them happy.
If a relationship isn’t fulfilling or safe, you must choose yourself -- because if you don’t value yourself, others won’t value you either.
We feel guilty when we think we’ve done something wrong. And if you’re a people-pleaser (you put a high value on other people’s opinions and don’t want to disappoint or upset others), you’re especially prone to feeling guilty. But, if you’re confident that ending a relationship (temporarily or permanently) is good for your emotional health, you won’t feel guilty. It may still be painful because it’s a loss that you’ll need to grieve. But grief is different than guilt, which, as I said, is based on the belief that you’re doing something wrong or mean or selfish.
Guilt is often fueled by other people telling you that you’re doing something wrong. They might tell you directly that you’re a terrible person if you stop talking to them or they might be more subtle and make comments about how awful it is when other people do this. They might use inflammatory language, such as Why would you abandon your parents?, that invalidates your feelings and needs and implies that you’re doing something wrong.
If someone is using guilt to manipulate you into doing what they want or staying in a relationship with them, it’s a sign of a dysfunctional relationship.
Guilt is a powerful emotion and can make us reluctant to end a relationship, even when it’s quite unhealthy. To overcome feelings of guilt, reassure yourself that ending a relationship isn’t a failure or a sign of your inadequacies. It’s a normal occurrence, although people don’t often talk about it openly. Give yourself permission to do what’s right for you.
Take care of yourself
Ending a relationship is emotionally taxing. It’s hard to finally admit that it’s what you need to do and it’s hard to hold your boundaries with people who don’t respect them. You’re also grieving the loss of a friend or family member. And even if this relationship has been abusive, hurtful, or unfulfilling, it’s normal to feel sad and struggle to break the bond you have. With this in mind, be sure to take extra good care of yourself so you can heal and recover from the loss of this relationship.
Learn More About Breaking Free from Toxic Relationships
Join me for a free online interview series about healing from toxic relationships, building self-esteem and wellbeing, and creating healthy relationships. This event is hosted by Avaiya and includes interviews and free resources from 40 therapists, coaches, and relationship experts. I will be speaking about trusting yourself again after a toxic relationship. To watch any or all of the interviews, just sign-up HERE. You'll then receive an email from Avaiya with instructions for watching the videos starting October 19, 2020.
©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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