To go or not to go
July 11, 2017 11:48 PM   Subscribe

How do you know you need to leave someone you love?

I've written so many versions of this already but perhaps the reality is that I don't know what my question would be. So I ask instead how do you know that you should leave someone you love? How can I know what's true, the truest of all my conflicting feelings? Dear Sugar and Ask Polly have addressed this but I've never been able to follow my gut, that silly capricious thing.

I'll give context as to why I'm asking although the details may only be a distraction. I am dating a wonderful man. Smart, witty, oh so charming. Kissable too. He isn't without his flaws—just like me, he loses patience easily and has a fiery temper—but we are strikingly compatible. I love him so much. And he is ready to build a home, a life together, and wants to usher me in.

But I worry and my worries are what hold me back from all-in crazy happiness. I think so much about breaking up, of simplifying my life, of being alone. I realize that quite a lot of this is my inability to trust and to believe in his love (despite his assurances). His certainty scares me, and I have a habit of ending relationships when I'm scared. I know that those feelings I should transcend. But there are others too. I'm young and I'm ambitious and I've always dreamed of building a great product, a great idea. I know that loving him comes with compromises, time that I wouldn't devote to working, new priorities, maybe a family. I happily trade that today but I wonder if someday I won't. If I am subordinating my wants to his. He supports me fully but few relationships are truly equal. There is another complication too. I have spent the better part of my adult life managing my parents' controlling tendencies, and their opposition to him has become emotionally ravaging for me. I know this is not his fault and not for him to bear but I could never choose a boyfriend over family. I am tired. I would rather have neither in my life rather than hurt my parents in that particular way. It's not fair, I know.

And so I come to you for advice AskMe. It's consuming me but I know only I can weigh all the consequences. My question is about how to make hard decisions in emotionally trying times. How do you decide? How do you know? Can you?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This isn't 100 percent, but like 99% of the time when someone makes you feel bad more than they make you feel good, it's time to go.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 12:05 AM on July 12, 2017 [10 favorites]

Your question is short on specifics and long on self-distrust ("I've never been able to follow my gut, that silly capricious thing"), and you sound somewhat young in the sense that you don't quite know what to want from a relationship. Meanwhile, all relationships require some degree of compromise--which is hopefully fairly distributed--but not all compromises are equal. (There was a good AskMe thread about this a few days ago, here.) If you really are young, or young-at-relationships, I wonder whether the abstract idea of forming a family is so tantalizing to you--with the opportunity to recreate the domestic life your parents failed to give you, but also to experiment with being a grownup for a little while--that it's hard to see the compromises you'd be making as truly permanent. Also, I think it's common for youthful relationships to be especially destructive because you don't know how to be your best selves with each other yet, and because you're just trying out different ways of being to see how they work in the real world. This assumes good intent of both parties, but if either are less-than-honorable, it complicates matters even more. Look, you sound too young to commit to anyone in a serious, spending-your-lives-together sense, or having-a-family-together sense. Commit to yourself: spend the next six or eight years being completely focused on living in a way that honors yourself and your spirit (which will likely mean letting sweethearts and romantic partners in to join you on that journey) and don't go making commitments of any sort before you're absolutely certain that you're ready for them.

In the end, whether or not you decide to end this, I'd recommend a long-term course of therapy to help you think through growing up and becoming independent of your parents, and to help you learn to trust your gut and not discount your feelings or emotions as silly and capricious. (And look, even if you're sometimes actually silly and capricious, what's underlying that? Some real impulse that's important to listen to, even if your actual execution isn't quite right.)
posted by tapir-whorf at 12:38 AM on July 12, 2017 [7 favorites]

Relationships are complicated, but relationships are also simple, and they get more simple the farther removed you are from them. You write, "I think so much about breaking up," and I think that's your answer. You wrote this question to Ask.Metafilter for a reason. You also have life goals you want to pursue. This is not your last chance at romance. You have a complex pile of options in front of you, but in the end they all pile onto a see-saw, and it's going to tip one way or the other. I think you already know which way it needs to tip.
posted by flod at 1:36 AM on July 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

One time when I was trying to decide if I should stay or go, a friend said to keep track over the course of a month how I felt on a calendar. With a check if I was happy enough and an X if I was unhappy and wanting to leave. At the end of the month I should count up the check marks and the Xs. If there were more check marks than Xs, I should stay. (I didn't make it through the month, though; it became clear to me that I just needed to break up.)

You sound torn between your parents and a man and your own desires. (For what it's worth, I'm on Team You.) You write, "I could never choose a boyfriend over family." Newsflash: Eventually, anyone who is partnered does exactly that. Not completely, not usually. But our partners become our closest day-to-day family and, ideally, our parents no longer hold sway over our lives.

Because therapy has helped me, and this is MetaFilter, I'm going to suggest that you consider seeing a therapist to help you wrestle with this issue. You may discover it's not so black and white. You may discover you can slow down the romance and take the time you need to figure out what you really want--for now--as well as work on appropriate limits and boundaries regarding your parents and their influence on your choices.

For what it's worth, any decision you make about this guy isn't The Decision that stops time and that can never changed. Also, you don't have to rush into anything. Also, it's mandatory to make mistakes. We are human--we aim to be perfect but we're not. One of my buddies drives me nuts trying to triangulate all 47 billion different possible results of any decision in hopes of guaranteeing the optimal outcome--and it doesn't work. You can weigh the risks versus benefits of a particular choice and you can work to improve the odds but you can't control the outcome. None of us can.

I can't really tell what you want. If you can't either, hunt for a helpful therapist until you find one. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:46 AM on July 12, 2017 [13 favorites]

…he loses patience easily and has a fiery temper…

Many would, reasonably, consider that to be grounds for leaving him. It is possible, though unlikely, that that will get better. More likely that it will get worse. Having kids and mortgages and career challenges put enormous strain on relationships. Kids especially will test you in ways you probably cannot imagine. You may not wish to go down that path with someone so volatile.

I have spent the better part of my adult life managing my parents' controlling tendencies, and their opposition to him has become emotionally ravaging for me. I know this is not his fault and not for him to bear but I could never choose a boyfriend over family.

That seems to answer your question from where I'm sitting. If your parents hate hm and you won't choose him over your parents then you probably should leave him.

Just a hunch, but if you've grown up with really controlling parents you are at significant risk of choosing a controlling partner and that is highly unlikely to work out well for you. I urge you in the strongest terms to avoid this. It is extremely dangerous for women to be with men who see it as ok to control them. Therapy will help you to learn to identify the danger signs and to understand what an emotionally healthy you wants in her life.

Good luck!
posted by mewsic at 2:42 AM on July 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Can you give yourself a break from making this decision? Like, for the next three months, tell him you don't want to hear about commitment, and for yourself, shut down those should-I-leave-him thoughts for a little while and just be in this relationship. That might bring you some clarity. It sounds like you're spiraling a little and getting caught in your own head.

However, if you are confident you will never choose him over your parents, it's kinder to let him go.
posted by chickenmagazine at 4:17 AM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you have to have your arm twisted, (or you have to even ask the question) it's wrong.
posted by Jubey at 5:03 AM on July 12, 2017

I just read and reread that exact Dear Sugar column until I internalized it, and then had a good reason to leave (in my case, it was moving for a new job).

If it's helpful, I had similar concerns and happinesses in my relationship. In the end, a crisis in his family ended up putting immense pressure on me to take on a lot of organization and coordination of his family's stuff (up to and including his dad's funeral), while absorbing a lot of ambient and targeted meanness. It was not worth it, and it all culminated in an incredibly hurtful and mean phone call that undermined the last 4 years of our relationship.

And now here I am, free.

I wish I had listened to Dear Sugar and my intuition a lot sooner.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:45 AM on July 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

Is there a specific reason your parents cite for not liking your partner? You say your parents are controlling, and I believe you, and if their dislike of your partner is tied to their weird need to exact control over you, then that's one thing. But even imperfect parents normally (at least theoretically) have their kid's best interest at heart (even if their idea of best interest doesn't match your own). If there's any merit in what they're saying, I might consider mulling it over and seeing how it plays with what you're already thinking about, especially as you're already on the fence and describe your partner as having a bit of a temper.

Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay by Mira Kirshenbaum does a pretty good job of looking into relationship dynamics and how to sort of best assess whether the bad times with your partner are surmountable obstacles or indications that it's time to call it quits. It can be REALLY hard when you're in the thick of a relationship (especially when there's a sunk cost fallacy coming into play) to figure out whether to break up or not in the absence of any really egregious transgressions.

Also, a little give and take in a relationship is healthy, but if you genuinely think that your relationship is at direct odds with your ability to reach your life goals, that is something I strongly recommend talking with your partner about. If they're as supportive as you say, they'll listen to your concerns and you can both talk about what that support will look like in a practical sense so you can put your mind to rest a bit. If they respond poorly, I think you have your answer whether to stay or go.
posted by helloimjennsco at 6:51 AM on July 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

I can't help but wonder if this question is about this particular guy, or your parents. I suspect that you might be wanting a little more freedom from them, too. I'm not sure you are in a good place for a relationship right now, and all your comments about freedom, space and finding yourself also apply to your parents
posted by Jacen at 8:18 AM on July 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I will try to address the broad question you ask about how people decide and whether it's possible to "know". I'd say that realising that you can't "know", in the deepest sense of "knowing, without doubt, that this is the right decision for the outcome of my life", is probably an important part of overcoming paralysis. Because you can have knowledge (in the sense of "true, justified beliefs") about the facts, about your feelings and even (to some extent) about the most likely outcomes of a particular decision, and it's that sort of knowledge you actually need to focus on. You don't have to be sure, in the strongest sense, about every major life decision, even those that involve commitment. But you do have to be at least confident and happy to take the step, based on an honest appraisal of the situation.

If I were in your situation I'd be concentrating on what a commitment means here. What will be the unavoidable consequences? What will be the negotiable consequences? Do you and your partner see those things in the same way? Are any of the consequences deal-breakers?

My guess, you're not at the stage in your life where you want the kind of commitment he wants. I'd be inclined to explore whether he is capable of being flexible about looking for that kind of commitment. Not just paying lip service to flexibility in order to get to the goal he wants, but genuinely doing what it takes to be happy with you now. If he is inflexible, or his attitude is highly transactional (i.e. expecting committments or concessions from you in return for focusing on your and your relationship's basic needs), I'd be inclined to distrust the possibility that he is actually going to be able to adapt to the various things you'll need in life, in order to be happy. It feels, to me, from what you're saying, like you are concerned that he has a role for you and your future already determined. If that's the case, and he's not able to quickly recognise the problems with it, I would be very sceptical of him being the sort of person able to offer you the support you need and deserve.
posted by howfar at 8:22 AM on July 12, 2017

I think you buried the lede:

I have spent the better part of my adult life managing my parents' controlling tendencies [...] I could never choose a boyfriend over family.

You're going to have to do something about that before you'll be able to have adult relationships that are not fraught with this self-distrust, and newsflash: your parents will never like anyone who threatens their ability to control you or take you out of their sphere of influence, and that's what adult relationships do.

In this case, it sounds like you are not ready to settle down on top of not being free from a dysfunctional relationship with your parents, so you should end it, but you should also consider not starting anything else in the future until you have that situation under control and have done the necessary reconstruction on yourself.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:45 AM on July 12, 2017 [14 favorites]

I've always dreamed of building a great product, a great idea. I know that loving him comes with compromises, time that I wouldn't devote to working, new priorities, maybe a family. I happily trade that today but I wonder if someday I won't. If I am subordinating my wants to his. He supports me fully but few relationships are truly equal.

This is weird. real weird. You can't have a forever boyfriend without expecting to have his babies, compromise your ambitions, and renounce equality?

if any of that is true in reality with this man, rather than being a private fear for the future --or even if it is just a private fear -- break up with him, but don't just break up with him; meet and befriend some partnered women who are interesting and working hard at something without having to fight their partners for the right to do it, and keep at it until you stop believing this. don't know whether someone like your boyfriend or parents convinced you of it or if it's your own theory based on your own ideas about the world. but come on. I cannot tell you what a blow it will be if and when you give up your dreams to marry some different guy and then meet a bunch of women who didn't do that, and realize it wasn't necessary. you can talk yourself into this kind of pointless sacrifice if you make yourself believe that it's the universal heterosexual compromise and you have no choice; discovering you didn't have to, when you already have, is perhaps the worst. let observation teach you better, don't wait for experience.

If you are not a woman than I apologize for my assumption. In that case I cannot imagine where you got these ideas from but they are still mistaken.
posted by queenofbithynia at 10:03 AM on July 12, 2017 [17 favorites]

"I have spent the better part of my adult life managing my parents' controlling tendencies, and their opposition to him has become emotionally ravaging for me. I know this is not his fault and not for him to bear but I could never choose a boyfriend over family."

Then do him a favor and leave him.

If you're saying in one breath "we're going to settle down together and build a family and our life together" and following it up with "my controlling parents interfere and I can't choose him over them," then I think you need to do emotional work around the way your parents raised you and the role they play in your adult life now, before you commit to him, or anyone, to that degree.

What Lyn said above is really good: "your parents will never like anyone who threatens their ability to control you or take you out of their sphere of influence, and that's what adult relationships do."
Even if you had the world's most perfect husband they wouldn't be happy about it or about him because they know that (emotionally healthy) grown ups in committed relationships planning to make their own families do not "choose" their parents over their own partner/partner and kids.

Have you ever had a period in your life where you were single, not heartbroken, an adult who functions on your own, making your own choices according to your own priorities - free from your controlling parents' influence even if you still maintain contact with them?

Experiencing this first will make you a better partner to anyone you meet.
posted by zdravo at 12:36 PM on July 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've always dreamed of building a great product, a great idea. I know that loving him comes with compromises, time that I wouldn't devote to working, new priorities, maybe a family. I happily trade that today but I wonder if someday I won't. If I am subordinating my wants to his. He supports me fully but few relationships are truly equal.

Is this, by chance, the narrative your parents are feeding you? Because that's what controlling and codependent parents do.

This is really a story about growing up, not about a particular relationship. This man may be wonderful for you, but ultimately, as others have mentioned, you have to be able to act for yourself, not your parents. I.E. you have to learn to say no to them, to set boundaries with them, and to disappoint them. Until you can do that you will always be torn between relationships and family. I know how difficult it is to know what you want when the voices surrounding you drown out your own inner voice.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 12:45 PM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't think you'll be able to have a happy relationship that results in building your own family while you give your parents veto power over each possibility.
posted by rhizome at 12:53 PM on July 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I could never choose a boyfriend over family

Until you can, you're not ready for a serious relationship. Don't do it to him.

When you choose someone to have a life and kids with, that's your new family. It takes priority over your previous family.
posted by tillsbury at 1:39 PM on July 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

I could never choose a boyfriend over family

Until you can, you're not ready for a serious relationship.

I feel this way in my own personal life but that is because I only want one of the two, so there's no choice or struggle. As a universal principle, I kind of think this is not much more defensible than saying (as the poster is saying to herself, or being told) that until you're able to choose a boyfriend over autonomy and equality, you're not ready for a serious relationship. A controlling family should be cut off or pushed back for one's own sake, whether one has a boyfriend or not. and if you have a decent family and decent boyfriend there should never be a reason for you to have to give up either for the other.

you may just mean in this very specific person's circumstances, and that's probably true. but other advice has been, both here and in response to other questions, explicit that everybody should do this and does do it if they have a good marriage. which is absurd. you don't have to demote all your family members down one notch when you fall in love. in the most romantic and perfect of marriages, your spouse is your best friend, but it's not a law of nature that you have to love your best friend more than your parents and siblings. even if I and maybe everyone else here happens to do just that.

the great thing about romance is it provides an excuse to put a space between yourself and your family if you were wanting to do that anyway. but it's a valid and useful excuse, not an obligation.
posted by queenofbithynia at 2:26 PM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you're anything like the way I was, you might have chosen a controlling partner as a way to keep the controlling parents at bay. The problem with that, is it doesn't make them any less controlling, and then you have someone else's expectations to manage.

I ended up breaking up with the guy and taking a huge step back from family while I entered therapy and figured out who the heck I was. It was incredibly lonely and difficult, but, oh, so worth it.
posted by dancing_angel at 3:07 PM on July 12, 2017

sometimes if you just decide (even if you're not 120% sure, and its not the most amazing decision...hell, it might even suck), it releases a sort of 'force', and things just somehow start falling into place. its pretty cool.

and look, try to accept that you cant always make the right choice. luckily we usually survive our mistakes.
sometimes an apparently first-shit-decision can turn out to be the best fucking thing ever. and yeah sometimes it just was a bad move. its life.

ambivalence is hell. but it is a hell with the cool feature that you can get yourself out of it.
posted by speakeasy at 3:33 PM on July 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

you don't have to demote all your family members down one notch when you fall in love

Sorry, no I didn't mean that, thanks for clarifying. What I meant by "choose boyfriend over family" was that if it is necessary due to conflict between them you need to be on the side of your spouse (new family), not your old family.
posted by tillsbury at 5:26 PM on July 12, 2017

I'm not sure if I can address all of this, but I know what it's like to have parents along these lines. Mine were very unhappy when I had boyfriends--and they didn't even really have huge objections to the boyfriends themselves, though each had their weird not 100% parentally approvable traits. Mostly I think they just did not want any rival to their affection, particularly in the case of my mom, plus my father was ill. There was a lot of drama and fighting that would go on with my parents just because I was dating. And I felt like you did: I can't pick a mere boyfriend of X# of months over my parents, who will be there forever (until death, anyway), and a boyfriend isn't going to be because he can leave any time he wants--why should I put him first? So both sides fought over me, I felt like a pushmepullyou, and in the end the boyfriends got fed up and dumped me. And I realized after the last one got fed up with me that I really can't have parents and a boyfriend at the same time. So I haven't dated in a long time and highly doubt I ever will again, at least as long as my mom needs me.*

* note: my father's dead and my mom finally just got a new boyfriend so I am reallyreallyreally hoping it works out so she's occupied.

Now, that was my choice to make and I made it consciously. Whether or not it's a good choice, I don't know, but it's not like I've found anyone to be interested in that was also interested in me in the last 10+ years to pass up on or miss out on either. I find it easier to not have to juggle both sides. It's a relief to not be fighting over "you're going to see him AGAIN this weekend! you just saw him three weeks ago! you never see us at all even though you came home just last weekend!" And I don't want kids so finding someone for kids isn't a problem. So I can see why the idea of being single is a relief for you.

As everyone else has pointed out, if you want to date, you are going to have to put your "partner" even if it's of short duration ahead of your parents. You are going to have to stand up to them, have fights with them, and possibly even cut them off/lose your parents if they REALLY object to having a rival for your affection. It's simpler to not have to worry about the inevitable fights and losing your parents if you just get rid of the boyfriend. I'm not gonna lie: it's a lot easier to get along with my mom when she has no rival. If you don't feel like you are up to this fight no matter how great the guy is, then you might as well break up now, and don't bother looking for a new dude unless your feelings change on that or your parents both die.

Also, it is really freaking hard to trust that a guy is going to stay with you if you choose him over your parents. I could never manage it myself. What if he dumps me and then my parents still hate me because I picked him and I'm all alone and I don't have a great reliable non-parent support system? Then I'm all alone forever!

But that said: good guys are extremely rare and hard to find (see "haven't met one in 10+ years") and despite totally sympathizing with you on what it's like to be married to your parents, I find it hard for me to 100% say "throw this fish back." Mostly he sounds like a good dude and I'm not really getting red flags from him necessarily from what I read here. So....I don't know. Are you unhappy with him in general or just around this parental situation? If your parents died in a car wreck tomorrow, would you still be considering breaking up with him? Is the decision to break up with him really just kind of revolving around your parents and how much they are unhappy with him existing? If you dump him tomorrow, will you be happy and relieved, regretting it, or (god help you) all of the above?

But overall, I guess it boils down to: you have to pick one side over the other, and if you'll never pick him or any man, then it's time to be permanently single.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:40 PM on July 12, 2017

If you want to go, please see this as our blessing and encouragement to leave. If you want to stay, please give yourself a break and stay -- for now, for a few months or forever. Nearly ten years ago when I was in a relationship that I didn't want to last forever but knew I also had to end eventually, an understanding friend gave me the sage and supportive advice to stop pressuring myself and let it be. She said, "When the time comes, you'll know and do what you need to do." It took me almost half a year and a private ultimatum but I ended things. And it was much easier than I had expected. I had -- and still have -- no regrets about it, and the ex and I met up a few times over the years as friendly acquaintances.

As someone who also struggles with a controlling family of origin whose role in my life can make romantic relationships more difficult, I totally know where you are coming from. Right now your family is putting you in this position where you feel you have to choose between them and your partner. I am 100% sure that the pressure is real but I also am 100% sure that there are other ways around it. It's so hard though when you're in the thick of things and doubt your own judgment and have trouble hearing your own voice. I speak from firsthand experience as someone who's finally dealing with it all head-on in my 30s: it's been so incredibly hard but I would not trade the progress for anything in the world. My partner of almost a year has been tough love (in a good way!) while my therapist of a year has been gentle and reassuring; it turns out that I needed both perspectives and approaches. As others have mentioned, I encourage you to find a therapist or counselor. A good match will be unbiased and 100% on your side, someone who won't judge but support and reflect back to you. Yes, you can do a lot on your own but it's nice having that professional support. Most people I know have "interviewed" 3-4 counselors before finding the right fit; it was the same for me. I know this is a lot about me here and may not apply to you, directly or indirectly, but I see a lot of myself in your question. If you'd like to chat more privately, please feel free to contact me via DM.

I wish you luck and trust that you will make the best decision in the end, whenever and whatever it may be.
posted by smorgasbord at 8:14 AM on July 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

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