Saying Goodbye: The Unraveling of Relationships

As a child, summer used to be my absolute favorite season: The freedom of no school, camp and ‘the country’, indulging in swimming and celebrating my birthday made it a pretty obvious choice. Now I claim spring as my favorite: the harbinger of hope and good, season of potential. Over time I have come to appreciate autumn for its beauty and the cooler weather that allows me to enjoy the outdoors in a different way than summer. Lately I’ve even stopped being so harsh on winter and learned to enjoy the coziness and inner warmth that can be enjoyed in the colder months.

As the seasons keep changing, our experiences of them change as well, depending on our own individual circumstances and what we associate with each of the time periods. I find that as the end of summer nears, it evokes feelings of longing and nostalgia for time to stand still. With school age children, fall is a clear reminder of change, as children enter a higher grade or transition from preschool to elementary, from middle school to high school, and beyond.

Time marches on relentlessly, bringing change in its wake. Some of the change is unexpected and sudden, while some of the change is more gradual, an evolution that may feel natural or unnatural.

One of the less spoken about topics when it comes to change within relationships is the unraveling of relationships. This is a major transitional event, whether it is the end of a marriage, a friendship, a therapeutic relationship, or even leaving a job. Of course, depending on circumstances, the impact of the transition and the related feelings will vary in difficulty and intensity.

Mike and Samantha had been married for two years when Samantha came for her first individual counseling session. From her description of her experiences in the relationship, it seemed that she was putting in a lot more effort than Mike when it came to communication and connection. Mike was disinterested in attending counseling, which is why Samantha came in on her own. She described scenarios where Mike could not or would not meet her needs. Samantha had difficulty setting boundaries in the relationship, because of her own issues, and this led to her sacrificing her emotional well being to stay in the relationship.

Some people actively make the choice to stay in a relationship at the cost of their self respect, self worth, and/or emotional health. This entails a radical acceptance of their situation and the knowledge that things are unlikely to ever change. This is a rather sad dynamic, where one (or both) of the partners is trapped or stuck in a way, whether they allow themselves to realize and feel it, or not.

To be clear, this is very different from a relationship where both parties are engaged in doing relational work towards building stability and security with each other. Even if partners can not meet each other’s every need, which is reasonable, the environment should ideally be one where needs can be addressed, discussed, and worked through together. The safety of a relationship where concerns can be aired and validated is different from a relationship where one needs to sacrifice their boundaries and values.

There are two main categories of ending a relationship by choice:

  1. The decision of when and how to approach the next step.
  2. Managing the outcome (e.g. difficult feelings such as regret, loneliness, and grief.)

Samantha took her time in processing her experiences while still in the relationship. There was rationalization, self blame, and guilt. As Samantha learned to tune in to the feelings she was experiencing, the recognition of her emotions encouraged her to think more deeply and led her to think about what she wanted out of the relationship.

Emotions are persistent; they will keep showing up, like an unwanted guest, until given some attention. The difference between a healthy approach and an unhealthy approach to managing emotions in times of transition is giving oneself the time and space to process the feelings surrounding the end of a relationship.

As unpleasant as it may sound, or feel, difficult emotions must be processed. The processing of emotions is not something that can be rushed, and there is no specific timetable to adhere to. What can set someone back emotionally is when they don’t take the time to process their experience and resulting emotions, or when people are dismissive and offer platitudes without offering the safe space that is so sorely needed.

The pain one feels when going through something that is a struggle can be so consuming, and it can truly be challenging to reach out for support.

Using therapy as the container to hold and process difficult feelings can be really helpful. In therapy, there is a nonjudgmental space where one may receive validation for their experience. Therapy is a safe space where one can talk about what is going on, address feelings, learn how to manage feelings and the trauma to allow for a healthier way forward. What happens when a client feels ready to leave therapy is another kind of relationship that is being terminated.

Just as with any relationship that is coming to a close, there can be many emotions surrounding the ending of the therapeutic relationship. It is common to enter therapy with the goal of ending therapy at some point, and yet questioning or letting go of the therapeutic relationship comes with its own challenges.

Termination of therapy may prove challenging to those who struggle with boundaries, with goodbyes, or with relationships in other ways. As in any relationship, saying goodbye is often accompanied by grief and sadness; there is nuance and complexity and complicated feelings are involved. The beauty in going through the termination process in a therapeutic relationship is that it can help with the realization that transitions (even goodbyes) can feel safe, and the difficulty is mitigated by a careful, supportive environment.

Saying goodbye is not easy, but with planning and tools to manage in place, a positive sense can prevail as new territory is navigated.