What should we do if it becomes clear that a relationship will not bring us to the lasting, true love that we desire? Do we stay in the relationship anyway, or end it and begin to move on?

Staying in. If we know that a relationship is at a dead end and still choose to stay in it, we do so either out of fear or out of comfort.

The fear of being alone is, perhaps, the most common fear that keeps us in a dead-end relationship. Our core beliefs and life experiences have taught us that to be without a partner is intolerable.

We fear that if we leave this relationship, we may not find another one. So we bite the bullet and stay. Even if, in the most unlikely of circumstances, we did find someone else, he or she could be worse. So we settle for the current guy or girl.

The fear of failure is not only a fear that the relationship has failed; rather it is the fear that I have failed. This is hard to overcome, especially if we have experienced several broken relationships. This fear becomes magnified by more dysfunction as one becomes aware of a bind: "This has been a bad relationship for a while, so if I end it now, that means I could have ended it earlier and not wasted all this time. I may be a failure for staying in it, but if I leave it now after staying in it for so long, then I'd be a stupid failure. I don't want to be a stupid failure so I might as well stay in this one and just be a failure for trying."

Moving on. If these fears are not present or can be worked through, one should be able to see a clearer road ahead for moving on from a troubled relationship. The following reference points can be helpful once the decision to move on is made:

1. Be timely. Once we're aware that attempts to improve the relationship have been fruitless, it is better to end the relationship immediately rather than wait. The longer the wait, the more difficult the breakup can be.

2. Be honest and direct. Put clear closure on a relationship rather than hope it will just fade away. By respectfully stating why the relationship is over, we can help to tie up any loose ends. While a face-to-face discussion is usually the best way to go, a phone call or letter is a good "Plan B" if you suspect that problems would arise through an "in-person" breakup.

3. Be consistent. If you say it's over, act like it's over. It often happens that someone breaks up on Monday and then is on the phone to the "breakee" by Wednesday. This sends a mixed message that makes the breakup harder and possibly increases the level of future conflict.

4. Be firm. Sometimes the "breakee" will try to keep the relationship going. Try not to put yourself in positions you don't want to be in - especially out of guilt. The more resolute you are, the better it will be for him or her in the long run.

5. Stay in tune with your emotions. Ending a relationship triggers many strong feelings of sadness, emptiness and loss. It is common for these feelings to be present even when we acknowledge a sense of relief that the relationship is over. Stay tuned to these feelings, process them within yourself by way of journaling or reflection and, if possible, talk about them with supportive family or friends.

Second chances
Should we give a second chance to a girlfriend or boyfriend with whom we've become dissatisfied? Again, the answer is, "Maybe," but not without different, definitive boundaries or expectations in place to help us be objective about the likelihood of change. The specifics of the "second chance plan" will vary from person to person, but, in general, should include a clear "if-then" contingency: "If you can change and show me in the following specific ways for (fill in number) months, then I will consider reestablishing the relationship. If you do (blank) again, then I will end the relationship for good." If your boyfriend or girlfriend says in response, "You shouldn't put conditions on me. What kind of relationship is that?" then it is time to walk away. This kind of self-centered response indicates that the prospects for change are weak.

What if you or I want the second chance and our boyfriend or girlfriend wants to end the relationship? Our initial reaction in this situation is always one of rejection. Being told by another person that we are no longer loved and wanted is very difficult to hear, and our response can run a continuum of emotion from shock to depression to anger. Our spectrum of behavior can range from withdrawal to rapid-fire attempts to win back the heart of the other with flowers, phone calls, e-mails and so on. Where we actually fall on these feeling-action spectrums is often determined by the messages we hear coming from rejection, especially if they confirm a preexisting negative view of our self-worth. Let's say, for example, that I entered the relationship thinking, "Maybe I'm not good enough to be loved." If I end up dumped, it is very likely that this fear will be intensified, leading me to become depressed, angry or defensive.

Self-defeating reactions
Regardless of whether a difficult relationship ends through our own decision, the other person’s decision or a mutual decision, several self-defeating reactions can ultimately limit our ability to move forward toward lasting love in the future: panic, depression and rebounds. …

To experience a healthy reaction to a broken relationship, we need to develop a positive focus about ourselves, our circumstances and our future. Creating this trio requires that we take time after a breakup to focus on our thoughts and feelings and accept them as real and valid. If we’re sad, we should cry. If we’re angry, we should express it in positive ways.

Talking to supportive friends, praying, writing our thoughts and feelings in a journal and so on, are excellent tools for helping us process both our emotions and experiences in ways that help us learn from what we’ve been through. In addition, it is also important to set solid boundaries around starting a new relationship. A good reference point is to hold off on any dating for a couple of months. This doesn’t mean that we can’t spend time with opposite-sex friends who are fun to be with or who offer us support. It does mean, however, that we shouldn’t pursue any romantic interests. We need time to get our head together.

We should also be sure that we’re staying active, eating right, getting rest and following through on any other aspects of healthy living that will serve to keep us in balance. Sure, we’ll fall off once in a while, but we have to be clear that just because a relationship has ended, we’re not a ball rebounding out of control. We have a say in which direction we want to go and have a much better chance of finding a future path to lasting love if we stay focused, deal constructively with our emotions (avoid panic, depression or retaliation) and take time before beginning a new relationship.

Can We Still Be Friends?
“If we can’t get our relationship back together, can we at least stay friends?” Probably not, at least not if your relationship was emotionally intimate. There are certainly exceptions to this, but usually couples who have experienced some form of a best friendship/love relationship have a very hard time relating to each other as nondating friends. This is especially true if there was any sexual involvement. Couples who are able to stay friends seem to be those who have a strong sense of themselves as individuals, have a deep respect for each other as persons and can maintain both when each begins new relationships. At some point, if the new relationship becomes serious, the ex-lovers-now-just-friends need to be distanced if the new relationships are going to work.

Excerpted from Making True Love: A Guide to Lasting Relationships by Thomas and Donna Finn, copyright 2001 by Daughters of St. Paul. Published by Pauline Books & Media, Boston, Ma. Click on http://www.pauline.org or call 1-800-876-4463 to order this book or Intimate Bedfellows: Love, Sex, and the Catholic Church, also by Thomas and Donna Finn.

Thomas Finn is a clinical psychologist in private practice as well as the consulting psychologist for the Franciscan Life Center in Meriden, Ct. Donna Finn is Clinical Manager in the Department of Rehabilitation at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. The Finns have extensive experience with programs for marriage preparation and guidance in human sexuality in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Ct.

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