I love relationships. I believe that a long term, committed relationship gives us the opportunity to experience joy and personal growth in a way that really nothing else can, and that relationships require work, patience, and compromise. In addition, long term, committed relationships often have a lot at stake besides the relationship itself: children, family, friends, money, property, and memory, and can be very hard to disentangle when a relationship falls apart. Therefore, I understand why people hold onto relationships long after they have become unfulfilling. However, the events of this past year have convinced me that no matter how much one loves one’s partner, and how much one wants to work things out, sometimes a relationship needs to dissolve, for the sanity of all involved. When one is pushed to the point of compromising one’s values, core needs, and health, it’s time to admit that a relationship is no longer salvageable and it’s best to let go.
So here’s 10 reasons for calling it quits:
Your basic relationship needs are ignored. I get that in poly it’s not about satisfying all of one’s needs through one partner. But everyone has basic relationship needs, which may include the need for sex, physical affection, respect, and quality time. You can have a good relationship if your partner doesn’t share your love of vintage black and white photography or your penchant for greyhounds, but what if your partner is not physically affectionate with you, hardly ever spends quality time with you, never wants to have sex, and does not consider your needs when it comes to finances or partnership in other areas of your life? Do you stay with her, hoping that a second relationship will meet the basic needs you can’t get met through your primary? What if you’re a secondary, and your partner has all kinds of restrictions on when and how he can spend time with you? Do you stay together even though the level of connection is far from what you want? Is polyamory a euphemism for “I’ll take whatever I can get?” I hope not. Just because we’re not restricted to one relationship, doesn’t mean that we have no standards when it comes to what we expect from our partners.
Your partner always sees their needs as more important than yours. You have something important to discuss with your partner, but they puts it off for days because they’re not in the mood. Your partner needs help with something on their computer, but you are in the middle of working. You need more quality time with your partner but they are too tired, too busy, or it’s too inconvenient. You need sexy time with your partner but they never put out. Loving partners will do things for you even when it’s inconvenient or not interesting to them, but when your partner is a narcissist, they don’t care what your needs are. All that matters is theirs, and they will be upset with you if you don’t satisfy their needs.
Your partner is unable to compromise. If one person wants to go to bed early and snuggle, and the other person wants to stay up late and surf the internet, they can compromise by going to bed together some time in between, or have some days where they go to bed together and snuggle, and some days where they go to bed at separate times. If one person is messy and the other person is neat, the neat partner can loosen up a little and the messy partner can try harder to pick up after himself. But when a relationship is dysfunctional, one or both partners is unable to compromise. They have to have it their way regardless of how you feel about it, or they lack the imagination to find a solution so they give up. The other partner’s dissatisfaction is not a problem that they concern themselves with.
Your partner does not treat you with respect. Your partner interrupts your phone conversation for an extended exchange. Your partner spreads out her craft materials all over the living room and leaves it out for days, even though you need the space too for your work and you don’t like the mess. Your partner turns the TV on when you’re in the middle of a phone job interview. Your partner calls and texts you multiple times when you are on a date with your other partner. Your partner takes phone calls and responds to texts multiple times when you are on a date with him. Your partner is often late or cancels at the last minute. Treating someone with respect is something we should expect from everyone. Ask yourself, would you allow someone you are dating to treat you this way? Would you allow a roommate to treat you this way? Would you allow a friend to treat you this way? If the answer is no, why would you allow your partner to treat you this way?
Your partner blames you and refuses to take responsibility. When your relationship isn’t going well, your partner blames you and refuses to take any responsibility for his contributions. If your partner isn’t happy, it’s your fault. If your finances are a shambles, it’s your fault. If they don’t like your other partner, it’s your fault. They expect to be taken care of, satisfied, and entertained, and if things are not going as well as they want, they don’t want to take any responsibility for making it better. To them, taking responsibility would mean admitting that they were wrong, and their self-esteem is too fragile to handle being wrong.
Your partner does not honor basic agreements. You agreed that you would not have unprotected sex with other partners. Your partner breaks this agreement. You agreed that you would spend the weekend together, and your partner makes plans with someone else. Your partner feels free to do whatever she wants with her partner, but she doesn’t allow you to have the same freedom. People are human and they do make mistakes, but when your partner repeatedly breaks rules, is not remorseful, does not extend the same privileges that she feels entitled to, and imposes rules that she does not follow herself, then something is wrong.
Your partner does not respect your other partner(s). When your partner vetoes your relationship with your other partner….after the relationship has been underway for more than a year….after the other partner moved to another country and divorced their other partner to be with you. When your partner does not respect that your other partner also needs your time and attention. When your partner interrupts your date with your other partner with their phone calls and texts. When your partner resents you helping your other partner. When your partner restricts your ability to spend time or express affection for your other partner(s). When your partner is not grateful when your other partner does something nice for you or for them.
Your partner’s needs are incompatible with yours. Your partner wants a sexually and emotionally monogamous relationship with you, and you want to live in a poly commune. Your partner wants to live like a real housewife of LA and you want to live like a hippie monk. Your partner wants to have another child and you don’t. Your partner wants to see you once a week and you want to see him six days a week. Your partner needs a lot of space in a relationship and you need a lot of intimacy. A lot of problems can be worked out by compromising and meeting your partner half way, but sometimes your interests are so far apart that meeting half way is not enough, or it’s too much. People are often times flexible and adaptable, but we shouldn’t expect that a partner will completely change who they are for us, or that we should change who we are for them. Rather than making both people miserable, it may be time to go separate ways so you can both live the life you want.
Your partner does not do their share of the finances, chores, childcare, relationship maintenance and other joint responsibilities. A relationship isn’t about making everything fifty fifty. Sometimes one partner makes a lot more money than the other, or are skilled at things the other partner isn’t. In times of hardship, one partner often does more to support the other. However, if your relationship is very lopsided, and there is no external reason for the imbalance (such as an illness or a job that takes the person away from home a lot), then this is a sign that your partner has checked out of the relationship. Does he leave all the childcare and housecare to you? Does she show no interest in your joint finances? Are you always the one planning things to do together? Are you always the one traveling to your partner, and he never makes the effort to travel to you? If one person is doing the lion’s share of maintaining the relationship or the household, and the other person is just coasting, that is not a loving, mutual relationship.
Your body sends distress signals. When you are in a physically or emotionally toxic environment, your body reacts to it and sends signals to let you know that a change of course is needed. But like the proverbial frog in the pot, we are remarkably adaptable to suffering and resistant to change. So we allow the status quo to continue, and succumb to obesity, addictions, or depression for many years before we realize we have a problem. Sometimes it requires something drastic like a cancer diagnosis to shake us up to how far we’ve let things slide. A bad marriage or dysfunctional relationship is as bad for one’s health as a toxic work environment or living environment. But people are often more willing to leave a bad job than they are willing to leave a bad relationship. We know that stress depresses the immune system, increases inflammation, damages DNA, and accelerates aging. Symptoms include insomnia, high blood pressure, weight loss or gain, bowel problems, headaches, susceptivity to the common cold and other infections, loss of sex drive, fatigue, irregular menstrual cycles, among other things.
I started experiencing these physical symptoms towards the end of my relationship, but I was terrified of losing my partner and the pain that this would cause. The pain got so bad that I was taking pain pills first thing every morning so that I could function throughout the day. My migraines became more frequent. My weight dropped from 112 pounds to 102. Interacting with my partner, whether it was a phone call or a visit, would trigger the pain and cause me to lose hours of productivity. This put a huge strain on my work as well as my other relationships. I realized that if I didn’t immediately embark on a wellness program, including avoiding the trigger that was my partner,I would permanently damage my health, if not outright kill myself. So please, listen to your body! A loving relationship should make you feel healthier, not make you sick!
I know of men and women who remained in toxic and dysfunctional relationships for far too long in the hopes that their partner would change, for the sake of the children, because they were afraid of the unknown future, etc. Those who did ultimately get divorced reported remarkable improvements in their wellbeing and wonder why they didn’t do it sooner. Polyamory is not a bandaid for dysfunctional relationships that should come to an end. Using other partners as a way to “cope” with a dysfunctional relationship is a deeply shitty way to treat people you love.
If you’re thinking that you should stick it out even though your relationship is unfulfilling, remember that life is too short to stay unhappy when you know that there is a way out. What helped me finally jump ship was my friend saying to me, “Is it possible for the two of you to stay together in a passable but unfulfilling relationship? Yes, it is, but why? You are not marooned together on an island; you are not the last humans on earth; the peace of nations doesn’t depend on your union. To what end are you sacrificing your own happiness?” I only had to imagine waking up 15 years from now, in the same state of misery, wondering why I didn’t end it years ago, to walk away and never look back.
Artwork by Dina Goldstein, “In the Dollhouse”