how to know when to go

Parting is such sweet sorrow? How to know when to go.

We only know what we know.  We often have little ability to have a clear, objective perspective on our relationships.  How do we know when to go?  Turning to the research, there is clear information about what constitutes a healthy relationship and what characterizes a not-so-good one.  This may help us know when parting becomes the better option than staying.

A healthy relationship is characterized by joy, kindnesses, and ease.  These can be qualities that come into the relationship organically or can be ones that you nurture and grow intentionally.  Essentially, a healthy relationship creates an environment where you can take off the mask and be yourself.  It is a place where you feel heard and seen by your partner.  John Gottman tells us more in his book, “What Makes Love Last?”

John Gottman is one of my favorite relationship researchers.  I find him funny and real, grounded in rigorous research techniques and more importantly, grounded in the humbling experience of divorce as well as a second wife that brings her therapist background to bear.   Gottman is most well known for being able to predict which couples will de-couple with a 94% success rate (the 94% success rate emanated from a single study in 1994 and has been replicated with various groupings of couples in subsequent studies).  The key tool of prediction is the story of the couple’s relationship in their own words.  Gottman and his team start by asking each couple to relay the story of how they met and then ask a series of prompts to delve into the details of their partnership.  The researchers are able to rate the couple’s story along a number of dimensions to determine whether the couple is likely to stay together or to go their separate ways.  Couples that stay together express ‘fondness and admiration’ for each other and have taken the time to really get to know each other’s inner world.  They have asked the questions that give insight into how their partners feel and think; they have taken the time to know what is important to the other, what they hold dear.  The couple describes themselves as partners, and even when struggles rise to the surface, they figure it out together and revel in their togetherness.  There is an inherent satisfaction in the relationship; it meets the expectations that were laid down long ago.

A very different story is told in relationships that have gone astray.  The storyline and/or the punchline emphasizes the negative over the positive.  The like is gone.  Couples that are veering into dangerous waters no longer have fondness and admiration for each other, in fact, when they describe their stories, there is more “I” or “me” than “we”.  Tales of the past are rewritten for how they have impacted the individual rather than the couple.  The stories may focus on forgotten dreams, dashed hopes or deep dissatisfaction.  The sense of conquering life together is gone; the partnership has lost its partners.

If you need to measure and analyze your relationship, Gottman is the one for you.  He provides quizzes with scores to measure and to know when to go. Score less than 45% on his scale of dissatisfaction and disillusionment, and it is time for you to go. (See What Makes Love Last? by John Gottman for more.)

Another Gottman concept that can be brought to the table is the four warning signs of relationship breakdown.   He lays out four pillars of dis-ease that can sneak into your relationship: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  The surest sign of contempt is the eye-roll as your partner states his/her case.  Contempt escalates into insults and name calling or may be disguised in hostile sarcasm or mockery.  Criticism is exemplified by barbs that start with “you always”, “you never” or “why are you so…”  The intent is to attack the partner through insults.  Defensiveness is when a partners sees and describes herself/hisself as a victim to keep from being attacked.   Defensiveness may involve making excuses, whining, switching topics or ignoring what the partner is trying to communicate.  Stonewalling starts with the crossing of arms and ends with unbreakable silence.

How to know when to go?

Observe your relationship for a couple weeks.  Ask yourself…

  1. Does my relationship have more contempt than kindness?
  2. Does my relationship have more criticism than support?
  3. Does my relationship have more defensiveness than empathy and understanding?
  4. Does my relationship have more stonewalling than conversation?

If yes, look for a therapist or coach that can help you move towards healthier ways of relating to each other.

Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works withpeople as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching how children and adults form healthy relationships for 25 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  This is an excerpt from her forthcoming book.  Contact her at or 207-200-3970.  She facilitates fun, engaging workshops on these topics as well.

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