15 Mar Learning to Let Go
Rhonda Rooney’s marriage started to unravel over three years ago, when her mother moved in with her family. Soon after, her husband lost his job and the financial pressure went through the roof. “I was a stay-at-home mom to our two children and he’d been supporting all of us,” says Rhonda, 49, who lives in Monroe, Connecticut. Her husband took a much lower-paying job to keep them afloat, but the stress of their new life took a toll. “I was so mentally exhausted trying to raise our kids and endure the challenges of my mom living in the same house in the face of our money struggles that I couldn’t think about my husband’s needs,” she admits. “He felt neglected because I wasn’t nurturing him or giving him enough affection. So he’d snap at me about something, and I’d snap back. The worst part is that we were doing it in front of our kids.”
Although Rhonda eventually went back to work as a paralegal, taking some of the financial burden off her husband, the couple continued to fight about everything from money to how to raise their children. “I asked him to go to couples counseling, but he refused,” she recalls. “I tried to reach him and talk it through, but he was so resistant. He would say that I checked out of the relationship, but I finally realized he had checked out and our marriage was over.”
When it comes to a spouse, repeated infidelity, substance addiction and physical abuse are obvious reasons to cut and run. But there are other insidious problems that can wear away at the fabric of a marriage, like a spouse who speaks to you disrespectfully, takes you for granted, is no longer there for you emotionally or constantly fights with you, notes Debra Burrell, LCSW, a licensed social worker in private practice in New York City. Sometimes there are no clear-cut issues at all: You’re just not happy. Yet that general sense of malaise can also eat away at a marriage. “If the relationship has gotten to the point that it’s adversely affecting your health, like causing stress-related headaches or stomach problems, then it’s time to consider a couples therapist,” advises Burrell. If that doesn’t help, it may be time to end the relationship. But what if it hasn’t reached such an extreme? How do you know when to let go then? “No two marriages are alike, so the answers to that question are as different as the people who ask it,” she says.
Bottom line: You have to decide for yourself how much is enough. Start by asking yourself: Am I happy? Am I fulfilled by my marriage? Am I willing to go to couples counseling? Do I even want to fix my marriage?
The answers can help you figure out whether to let go or try harder. “Unlike with friendships that are broken, parting ways with a spouse is more difficult because you’ve committed your life to this person. We hold those vows sacred,” Burrell says. “And when you have children, deciding to divorce can be even harder. However, when a marriage isn’t working despite your best efforts, you need to accept that, allow yourself to grieve, then move on.”
There’s no question that it’s going to be difficult, and though friends and family (especially those who are divorced themselves) can offer much-needed support, it’s important to have an informational chat with a lawyer to prepare yourself—even if you’re still in the thinking-about-it stage. “Spending an hour with an attorney who specializes in family law can help you understand what your rights are, what legal steps you’ll need to take, how to prepare yourself for a separation, even the best way to broach the topic of divorce with your husband,” says Burrell. “And you don’t have to feel obligated to tell your spouse about the meeting.”
After all the anger and tears, you’ll eventually come to a place of acceptance. And you’ll realize that life does go on after divorce. Here’s how to get there a little faster: Visualize yourself being happy in the future. “Close your eyes and imagine that you are walking down the street holding hands and laughing with another partner,” suggests Burrell. “Seeing yourself happy and in love again can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
How do you know when a friendship is on its last legs? If a pal has done something unforgivable or hurtful, or is simply a constant nuisance, the sanity-saving thing to do may be to cut her off, says Florence Isaacs, author of Toxic Friends, True Friends. That’s what Kathryn Hoots, 42, did. She always thought her friends would be happy for her when she got married and started a family. But when one of them didn’t seem to be, it threw Kathryn for a loop. “This one friend liked going out and having fun when we were both single, but as soon as I got married and had a child, she seemed to lose interest,” says Kathryn, who has a 2-year-old and is currently expecting twins.
During the course of their 13-year friendship, the woman always steered conversations to her own problems, never taking much interest in Kathryn’s, especially after she became a mom. “She never wanted to meet my son and she even told me that I wasn’t the maternal type,” says Kathryn, who lives in New York City. That was the turning point. Kathryn had put up with her friend’s self-absorbed behavior for years, but the comment made her wonder why. By the time the friend called to apologize for the offensive remark, Kathryn had already begun to reassess their relationship. “She just didn’t seem able to be happy for me, and that’s not a real friend,” says Kathryn. “I couldn’t put any more time or effort in after that.” The two are no longer friends.
Kathryn made a quick, clean cut, but there are several ways to let go of a friendship, whether you just want to put some distance between you or sever the ties completely. If you’re not sure what you want to do, put pen to paper. “Draw a line down the middle of a page,” suggests Isaacs. “On one side, list the good things that you get out of the friendship; on the other, the bad. If the bad outnumber the good, and you’re not getting something substantive enough from the relationship, it’s time to act.”
You can start by being slower to return calls and emails, says Dr. Bonior. “The only way the slow fade will be successful, however, is if the person picks up on your signals. Otherwise the friend might try harder to get you back. In either case, it can be a good first step.”
And while it may be tempting to avoid any awkwardness by pulling a sudden vanishing act, like Kathryn did, don’t. It prevents you from having closure, explains Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Toxic Friends: The Antidote for Women Stuck in Complicated Friendships. “You’ll both be left with unresolved feelings,” she explains. “As with romantic relationships, you must have that difficult conversation about why you don’t want to see this friend. Try saying, ‘Look, we’ve been good friends for a long time, but maybe we should take a break for a while because…’ and gently lay out the problem as you see it. There is a risk/reward in doing this. You might lose her forever, or she might say, ‘I’m sorry,’ in which case the relationship can be repaired.” If it is the end, be prepared to go through a mourning period afterward, says Dr. Bonior. “Feelings of sadness, anger, confusion and regret can last for weeks or even months.”
It’s even harder to make a break when a pal is part of a larger circle of friends, because there’s the chance you might alienate yourself from the group. It’s almost like a divorce, in a way: Friends feel as if they must choose one or the other. Your best bet? Form an alliance with those who share your feelings, says Dr. Bonior. “Talk to the others. Say, ‘Sometimes I feel like Linda is belittling me; do any of you feel that way?’ If they do, then talk to the person about her behavior as a group. There’s strength in numbers.” And if they don’t, assure them that you have no problem with them remaining friends with the person—even if you’re not. It worked for Kathryn. When her pals go out with the woman she let go, there are no hard feelings. “The bond I have with my other friends is solid enough that I don’t feel threatened by their friendship with her,” she says. “The upside for me? I don’t have to deal with her anymore, and I haven’t lost any pals because of it.”
Despite our shared memories, or perhaps because of them, sibling relationships can often be the most conflicted, says Dr. Lewis. “Siblings are caught in the perceptions and feelings they’ve had about each other since childhood, and this can lock people into roles that might not be accurate anymore.” The selfish sister who constantly puts herself first. The bossy brother who always tries to run the show. The rebel who will never be responsible…and so on.
Diane Brodie, 53, of Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, knows firsthand how dangerous those sibling minefields can be. “My older sister was the straight-A good girl and I was the free spirit,” she says. “Yet, despite that, my mother always seemed to favor me, and I think my sister may have resented our special bond.”
That, plus a six-year age difference, meant the two were never close growing up. But deep down, Diane always thought their relationship would change as they got older, becoming one of friendship and mutual respect.
Over the years, however, as the two forged completely different lives as adults—Diane becoming a divorced, successful entrepreneur, her sister a loving wife and mother—Diane’s sister remained distant. “When she got engaged I was extremely happy for her,” recalls Diane. “I was looking forward to sharing in her special day.” Given the occasion, Diane thought her sister would feel the same way and ask her to be her maid of honor for the wedding. But she asked one of their cousins instead—a slight made all the worse because it would be so public. “Even though we weren’t close, I thought she would still want me to stand up for her, because that’s what sisters do. That really hurt me.”
The snubs continued, despite Diane’s repeated attempts to connect. She made it a point to visit her sister and her family often, including holidays, birthdays and during special events, even though her sister never reciprocated the visits. “I was the one doing all of the work, always,” Diane says. “What’s worse, every time I’d go see her and her family, it would be all about them. She never asked me about my life or my work, even after I started my own business, which is something I was really proud and excited about. After a while, that kind of indifferent treatment makes you feel like you just don’t matter.”
Diane finally decided to stop reaching out. “I never tried to talk to her about how I felt. I guess I just didn’t see the point anymore since that was the way she’d always behaved toward me.”
Although it’s not healthy to hold on to someone who is hurting you, not even a relative, Dr. Lewis warns against giving up too soon, because there’s always a possibility that the person will change in the future. “Even if you never want to see her again in that moment, you need to talk it out,” she says. “Make sure you have tried everything before you let go, even counseling. If your family member continues to be demeaning, you can say, ‘I don’t think it’s in my best interest to talk to or see you right now.’ But you should leave the door open, because when you’re not connected to your blood ties you often feel lost and untethered. Everything about who we are stems from our families and our shared history.”
If you do want to reach out to her at some point, try writing a letter or email. “Confronting an estranged relative is far more emotionally charged, anxiety-ridden and guilt-producing than with an estranged friend,” explains Susan Forward, PhD, author of Emotional Blackmail. “You’re addressing deep-rooted issues that often date back to your childhood and those emotional triggers can trip you up.” That’s why writing is preferable to a face-to-face confrontation, because it allows you to calmly think of what you want to say without being defensive. “Letters or emails are powerful because you can’t be interrupted or disagreed with,” she adds. “It’s easy to get upset and lose your train of thought if you’re speaking to the person directly.”
Once the letter has been sent, don’t follow up, she adds. “You’ve said your piece. Now it’s up to the recipient to respond.” And if you get no reply? “Then that’s your answer. There’s nothing else you can do.”
Although Diane hadn’t seen or spoken to her sister in 10 years, two years ago she decided to reach out to her one last time. “I sent her an email telling her I loved her and always would, and suggested that email might be a good way for us to stay in touch,” recalls Diane. “My sister thanked me for the note, said she agreed and that I was welcome to visit anytime. To me, that response felt like nothing had changed: It would still be me doing all the work. So I haven’t visited. Things may never change between the two of us, but I feel as though by reaching out I made peace with whatever relationship we do have going forward.”