There is one moment from my recently departed relationship that replayed in my mind our entire time together. It is a fight we had one night, nearly two months in. About what I don’t remember, but at some point, I turned around and walked away. Eventually, my girlfriend, Emily*, caught up to me on the corner. “If you keep going, that’s it. I don’t break up with people twice,” she said. “I will never speak to you again.” I turned around and followed her back to her apartment.
I should have kept going.
This is the uninvited guest of a thought that stormed in every time anything in our relationship went wrong and occasionally when nothing at all did. I found it so offensive, so disorienting, and so incompatible with my day-to-day reality that I told no one. I was barely willing to acknowledge it myself.
“People stay in relationships for all sorts of reasons,” my therapist told me after I sought her vague approval for staying in a relationship I knew I should leave. “Marriage does not always have to be the goal.” While that sounds true enough, I couldn’t have been getting the best advice from her because I was hiding at least half the red flags, the ones that said, “You have to go. You know that, right?”
Nothing was stopping me from leaving, per say, but it felt like something was. I did not know how to leave. I worried about my girlfriend’s reaction, but I also worried about my reaction. Every time I was almost mentally there, I would hear her telling me she would never speak to me again — I did not believe it to be an empty threat — and I feared I could not handle losing her completely.
Besides, things weren’t always bad. It wasn’t that I lived in around-the-clock misery as much as I knew the relationship was not right. When we weren’t fighting, I knew it couldn’t work forever, but I thought it could work for a little longer. I wanted it to. When we were fighting, I’d broach the topic of breaking up only to be met with Emily’s unconsolable tears, talk of wanting to die, and bedridden depression that lasted for days, sometimes weeks.
“You’re not responsible for her emotions,” my therapist said, though I already knew that. “You can’t stay in a relationship to protect the other person’s feelings. And if she threatens suicide, you can call the police for a wellness check.” Another thing I already knew, but could I really do that? Could I wash my hands of someone I loved mid-downward spiral and send strange policemen to her door if things got too real? No, I could not. I would not. I would stay until she was ready to leave.
“Not wanting to hurt your partner is a very normal aspect of love and partnership, even when considering a breakup, says Tzlil Hertzberg, LMHC. “However, when this becomes a fear and ends up taking priority over your own wants and needs, there is a potential problem.”
Fourteen months later, my girlfriend was ready to leave or “take a break,” as she put it, but that’s just a halfway house where broken relationships go to sever. I agreed immediately, seeking little explanation and less convincing. I had been waiting for this moment for over a year, but now that it was here the only thing I could do was cry. I felt sad, lost, and alone. Maybe I took the relationship for granted and was now going to pay. Maybe after two years feeling sad was inevitable. Or maybe something else was at play.
“Partners can often find themselves in a state of codependence, a very complicated, multilayered entanglement of behaviors that build off of one another,” says Hertzberg. “It can lead to cloudy judgment and decision-making, especially when it comes time to break up.” I had not considered codependence before this, favoring tried-and-true explanations like fear of confrontation or lack of boundaries to explain my actions. But when I looked up signs of a codependent relationship, ding, ding, ding.
Keeping quiet to avoid arguments? Check.
Feeling trapped in the relationship? Check.
Difficulty saying no to partners’ demands? Check.
Constantly worrying about other people’s opinions? Check.
Feeling a sense of purpose by making sacrifices for the other person. Half check.
Looking at my relationship through the lens of codependency allowed me to see just how big of a role fear played in my refusal to leave.
“A common reason for staying in a relationship is people’s fear of being alone and unloved. Being with someone, no matter how dysfunctional, gives a sense of security and togetherness,” Hertzberg says. “Sometimes we think our relationship is the best we are going to get. We convince ourselves that it will be fine. We get so used to our current reality that we rationalize behaviors that we wouldn’t normally put up with.”
I’d like to tell you I learned how to avoid this next time, but beyond leaving as soon as the first red flag waves, I can’t say I have a plan. Or, at least, I don’t have a backup plan for when I want to stay despite the red flag. It’s why I should have kept going was such a tormenting thought: It was the moment I came closest to making my exit. After that I felt completely trapped, even if it was in a prison of my own making. I thought letting the relationship naturally wind down would be easier for us both, but I was wrong. Nothing is as time-consuming, disorienting, and exhausting as staying when you know should leave.
If you are experiencing mental illness and are in need of support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
*Name has been changed,