Image: a woman in shorts and a top walking away from the camera on a beach, her footprints in the sand behind her.

Image: a woman in shorts and a top walking away from the camera on a beach, her footprints in the sand behind her.

One of the most common issues that people bring to me is when they’re having really serious relationship issues and feel lost. Sometimes their partner has betrayed their trust, sometimes their sex life isn’t working, sometimes their partner is cruel to them. In all of these situations, the person comes into my office and spills their sorrow and frustration and anger. They tell me that they don’t know how to fix the relationship.

Want to know what I see?

In a lot of these situations, I see someone who wants nothing more than for a relationship to work. They are grabbing on as hard as they can even though, in many of these cases, the relationship they think they’re holding on to is already gone.

I know, this sounds harsh, but let me tell you a personal story that will show how this can go.

When I first met Thomas (name changed), we were crazy about each other. I was his first real polyamorous partner so we talked a lot about expectations and boundaries and agreements. Our agreements were pretty simple: barriers for penetrative sex and keep each other up to date about any new partners or planned dates. Within our first month or two together, Thomas hooked up with an on again off again partner of his. And he didn’t tell me about it. Until after he and I had already had sex since his hook up. He then also revealed that he hadn’t used barriers with her either.

I figured this was a rookie poly mistake and he expressed sincere remorse and wanted to move forward. We reiterated understandings and agreements and I thought we were good. Fast forward a couple of months and I have a surgery so I don’t see him much for a couple of weeks. When we got back together, he was staying with me most every night to help with some of my post-surgical care. About four weeks since we had parted for my surgery, Thomas revealed to me that he had been seeing someone since the day after we parted. She was married, to a man who didn’t know about her affair, and they had not been using barriers for sex. I was livid and told him things were over.

Did I stick to it? Well here’s the thing: I loved him. I loved him so much that when he apologized again and insisted that he would do whatever it took to regain my trust, I wanted to find a way to keep things going (it didn’t hurt he brought his dog, who I loved, along to see me). We came up with an elaborate set of rules and agreements that would let him show his trustworthiness. What I saw though was that the more rules we set up, the more little ways he broke the rules and the crazier I became. I was crying every day, I felt out of control, helpless, desperate.

I spoke about it with the coach I was seeing at the time and she told me something I’ve told so many people before – trying to legislate someone else’s behavior will only make you feel crazy and make your partner feel resentful. She talked to me about reframing my thoughts and my requests in terms of only things I could fully control. Instead of telling Thomas what he could or couldn’t do, I instead had to figure out what I was okay with and what would have to change if it didn’t happen. So when he decided to hook up with her even after I made it clear that I didn’t want to be involved with someone who was in an unethical relationship, I was able to walk away instead of falling over in tears again.

In the end, I was afraid of letting go because of how much I would lose. I would lose his love, great sex, and the amazing things we had talked about for our future. I had this whole life in my head that I had become so attached to that I was starting to accept being treated in ways that weren’t healthy for me. I went out of my mind trying to protect that fiction that didn’t even exist at the cost to my health and happiness in the very real present world. And, in the end, that future was no longer possible. Could I really be happy with someone who would ignore my needs and my personal safety that way? Would I ever have even been able to trust him again? Probably not.

For me, it was time to walk away. It was time to let things end. No matter how much I really wanted that future, it was no longer real. And the time I spent holding onto that future brought me nothing but misery.

When you find yourself going nuts trying to control someone else’s behavior, take a step back and ask yourself what’s going on. Because if you have to order someone to not hurt you, what’s up with that? If you cannot trust your partner to act from a place of love for you, is that a partner you want?

There are lots of questions you can ask yourself to help decide whether this is something to keep working on or to walk away from. A few are:

  • Is this a one-time infraction or a pattern?
  • How are they responding to it?
  • What would it take for you to forgive them? To trust them again?
  • If they cannot change anything about their behavior, how does that change things for you?
  • Are you invested in the relationship you’re actually having right now with this person or a version of it that no longer exists?
  • How might you approach this differently if you only focused on what you can control?

Walking away from someone you loved is always hard, but as Mark Manson wrote, Love Is Not Enough. The pain of leaving is almost never as much as the pain of staying in a situation where you feel helpless, disrespected, and stressed.  So let it go.  Walk away.  Give yourself permission.  And remind yourself that no matter how scarce love may seem right now, it is more abundant than you could ever know.