How do you know when it is time to end a relationship?  How long do you continue in a relationship before realizing that things won’t improve?  Is it possible to gain power by letting go of a relationship?

These questions were brought home starkly to me recently as a result of two very different incidents.  The first was a night class that I am taking sponsored by an organization in Columbus, Ohio called “Retirement Options”.  In a recent online discussion the facilitator mentioned that many people approaching retirement are reluctant to retire because so much of their identity is caught up by their identification with their work.  She mentioned that it is possible for people to gain power by letting go of the past, and in this case, the value they ascribe to themselves based on their previous profession or job.  By defining themselves in terms other than what they did previously in their working career they have an opportunity to seek out new meaning, purpose and identity in their lives.

The second involved a personal relationship with someone with whom I have had a close personal and professional relationship for nearly thirty years.  This individual and I worked together for about five years, and long after we both left our former employer we continued a friendship for many years.  Until about four years ago our interactions were limited to twice a year phone calls or an occasional dinner.  About four years ago due to a family challenge she and connected on a more regular basis.  Although we experienced some good times many of our recent encounters and exchanges were characterized by tension and miscommunication.  Ultimately, a series of incidents and encounters arose that severely tested and strained our friendship.  I recently made the very difficult decision to end it.  Suffice to say it was a decision I reached after a great deal of soul-searching and personal reflection.

How do you know when it is time to let go?

There is no simple, easy answer to this question.  Change can be troubling, and like a lot of people I grapple with how best to improve a personal relationship when things seem stuck in a rut or where there is little sign of improvement.  Here are some personal thoughts of when I believe it is time to let go:

  • When there is no sign of improvement. No matter what you say or do nothing seems to make any difference.  Even when you change the delivery medium, or modify your delivery, or change the syntax, the result remains the same.
  • When one or both sides are so intractable that the possibility of movement or compromise is non-existent.  Although I like to consider myself reasonably flexible, there were times when our conversations seemed to degenerate into debates, and I felt myself under attack.  Admittedly, I became resolute in my position.
  • When there is no prospect of betterment in the foreseeable future.  In this case, I looked at the situation from various perspectives, and no matter what I thought about to overcome the impasse I honestly felt it would make absolutely no difference in the quality of our relationship.
  • When conversations and interactions are toxic, and leave you emotionally drained, anger or bitter.  After every recent chat I came away angry, disconsolate and feeling negative about my friend and I.
  • When you dare to contemplate what your life would be like if this person were out of it, and you suddenly realize that a future without them doesn’t appear so bad.   I hate to admit it, but during long periods when we didn’t converse I actually felt much better.  That got me thinking about what would happen if we just went our separate ways.  I came to the conclusion that life would go on, and somehow we would both survive but independent of one another.
  • When one or both of you recognize that the emotional and psychological scars you are inflicting on one another will never heal.  Looking back it seemed every one of our telephone calls was a boxing match.  There were times when I felt as if I should be counting how many blows we were landing on one another.  During one of our many verbal altercations my friend made the observation that perhaps we weren’t meant to be closer.  At the time I felt like this was a betrayal, but in retrospect, it was probably an astute observation.
  • When you seek the advice of a friend or third party, and they see the situation from the same perspective as you.  The older I get the more I value the advice and counsel of trusted friends and colleagues.  In the case of my relationship, I reached out to someone who knew us both to ask his opinion.  Surprisingly, his assessment was much the same as mine.

How can letting go be considered “powerful”?

We live in a society that rewards and values persistence.  In school, at work, in sports, in pretty much any field of human endeavor, demonstrating resilience and “toughing it out” is rewarded.  Our society conditions us to persevere, to hang in or hang on, and persist in the face of adversity.  Yet, as admirable a quality as this may appear there comes a time when persistence becomes counter-productive.  Hanging in or hanging on for the sake of appearances or trying to make things better may appear noble, but it can also be become debilitating.

Gaining power by letting go is actually empowering.  The power comes from an honest acknowledgement of the facts, a fair and impartial appraisal of the situation, and contemplating options on how best to deal with it.  Certainly, continuing with things the way they are is one option, and there are other things that may also be as part of the range of options.  However, letting go is also an option.  

A Final Thought

Hindsight is always 20-20.  As I reflect on my relationship and the events leading up to my decision I have many regrets.  There are many things I wish I had said, many things I wish I hadn’t said, and things I wish I had done differently.  In spite of this, I look on my decision not as a failure but as a watershed. None of us can turn the clock back, but hopefully, we can at least move forward and learn from our mistakes.