Cultivating healthy relationships: Knowing when and how to get out of a dysfunctional relationship

If you recall from the first post in this series, a healthy relationship is one where we are able to increase our own good qualities in the relationship.

So with this understanding, under what conditions should we get out of a relationship?  It depends on what we want.  If what we want is good external conditions, the answer may be different than if what we want is to develop ourselves internally.  Historically, what we want is good external conditions, so we jump from one situation to another depending on the external rewards of the situation.  As we start to want internal growth and development, an entirely new level of justification for remaining in a relationship arises.  It is entirely possible that from an external perspective, there is nothing keeping us in a relationship, but from an internal perspective, we are still growing so we want to stick around.  Whether we remain in a relationship depends on many factors:

It depends on our capacity to use/transform the situation into an opportunity to increase our inner qualities.  If the situation we are in is so extreme that it is functioning to destroy us internally, then the situation is beyond our capacity and we need to get out.  This does not mean that there won’t be difficult times and situations where we are knocked on our butt.  The question is do we have the capacity to pick ourselves back up again and be better for it.  In this context, it depends upon our motivation.  If our motivation is thinking that we can run away from our problems by running away from the relationship, then we will be disappointed.  We cannot escape from our karma.  If we moved to a cave to get away from it all, we would start to prefer some parts of the cave to others.

It depends on whether we have tried everything.  Before we leave a situation we need to make sure that we have tried everything we can think of, plus some, to make it work.  Only then can we leave with a clean conscience.

It depends on whether the other person has the intention to change.  If somebody doesn’t have the intention to change, then no matter what you do, they won’t change.  People often think if they get married or have a kid then the person will change, but then they are disappointed when it doesn’t happen.  If the other person doesn’t have a sincere interest in changing, then they won’t.  So we should stop holding out for that, and move on to help somebody else.

It depends on our sense of self-worth.  We tend to undervalue ourselves and allow ourselves to remain in an unhealthy situation.  In the eyes of the Buddhas, we are all perfectly good and extremely precious.  Because we lack confidence in ourselves we think it is better to be with somebody even if it is bad than it is to be alone.  This is not true.  It is better to be alone than to be in a destructive relationship.

It depends on our relevant alternatives.  In general we say that our task is to learn how to respond to the situations we find ourselves in without delusion.  If we cannot yet do this, but we still have the capacity to grow, then we should stay.  However, this depends on our alternatives.  It doesn’t make sense to exaggerate the importance of a few people at the expense of the many.  We may be able to remain in a situation and have a small effect on somebody else, but if our alternative is to bring about greater benefit to a greater number of people, then it may make sense for us to get out.

So assuming we have examined carefully these points, and we have decided that we need to get out, the question is how.  We need to generate a pure motivation concerned for the other person.  We need to try to leave for their sake, and understand how our leaving is best for them in the long-run (even if it means in the short-run they suffer more from losing us).  If we are genuine with this, then when we explain to them why we are leaving for their sake, they will be able to accept it easier.  If we are not at the point of leaving yet, we need to set terms under which we are willing to stay and leave it up to the other person to decide if they can meet those terms or not.  We need to come to a clear understanding of what is a functional relationship and under what conditions we are willing to stay.  Then we have an honest conversation with the other person communicating the conditions under which we can remain.  Then if the relationship does break it is because they decided that they can’t stay under our terms.  So it is them who is leaving, not us.  We should not let things linger on.  If we know it is going nowhere, it is better to end it and move on than to let things linger for years.  If it is just not going to work, it is better to come to this understanding early and make a clean break than it is to allow things to linger on in a goofy way.

When things are really dysfunctional, what do we do?  Usually the thing that prevents us from getting out is emotional blackmail of an extreme sense.  We get out in such circumstances by gradually breaking the cycle of emotional blackmail, as described in an earlier post.  It is quite possible that the other person will not want to remain with us when they realize that they can no longer emotionally blackmail us.  In abuse situations, we need to realize that we are harming the other person by allowing them to abuse us, and we need to get out.  If it is really extreme threats either of suicide or real harm, then we need to be very careful, but we need to know that staying in such a situation will not make it go away.  We need to get out, it is just an issue of how.  In such cases, we should seek professional advice.

2 thoughts on “Cultivating healthy relationships: Knowing when and how to get out of a dysfunctional relationship

  1. Great series of articles! I wish they were available when I was in my last relationship years ago. I would have applied the “tests” and not stayed in a disfunctional/abusive relationship for so long.

    I think the best parts are the tests of whether by staying in the relationship we are still learning/growing, or just suffering, and whether the other person is interested in trying to change. I also thought it was very interesting that by staying and allowing the other person to continue to abuse us that we are actually allowing them to be further harmed too.

  2. Thanks so much for this Ryan.. It is really relevant for me just now as am in the process of leaving my marriage where I have worked at transforming and strengthening my mind. But now all stones are turned and it is time to end it. Not easy but wisdom has to be there alongside compassion. Also a great lesson in renunciation and the truth of the suffering of our lives. Love to you.. x

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