For a variety of reasons—some religious, some social, some economic, some interpersonal, and perhaps some based on an analysis of costs and benefits—people feel that relationships should last and that it’s bad when they end. And so you often respond positively when a couple says they’ve been together for a long period of time and respond with sadness and “I’m sorry” or “that’s too bad” when you hear they’re breaking up. Researchers and textbook authors seem to echo this popular belief. I can’t seem to find this topic in any of the interpersonal communication texts.
Upon more sober reflection, however, it should be clear that there are many advantages to relationship dissolution. Often, the relationship deserves to be dissolved. So, this brief post is in the nature of a suggestion to researchers, textbook authors, instructors, and interpersonal-relationship-watchers to look more carefully at relationship dissolution, particularly its advantages. It’s easy to come up with lots of examples from friendship, love, and even family that illustrate the advantages of relationship dissolution.
Friendships may become destructive or overly competitive—as they might in a variety of work situations—and may be better put aside. When a “friend” makes your self-disclosures public or otherwise betrays your confidence and this becomes a pattern that’s repeated over and over again, it may be time to move from the level of friendship to that of seldom-seen acquaintanceship. When a “friend” just uses you and gives nothing in return, it may be time to dissolve.
Romantic relationships—whether dating, married, domestic partnership, or any other such relationship—may become unbalanced, where one person does all the work and the other reaps all the benefits. Some romantic relationships may become verbally or physically abusive (or the abusiveness reaches an intolerable level) and in these cases, the relationship may be better dissolved.
Even in families, certain members or relationships within the family may become toxic. Partners, parents, or children often become enablers, helping a family member to engage in destructive behavior—for example, helping to hide the alcoholism from friends and relatives and thus helping the partner to continue drinking more comfortably and without social criticism. Gay and lesbian children who are rejected by their families after coming out, may be better off away from homophobic (and guilt-instilling) parents, siblings, and assorted relatives. And the same can be said for a son or daughter who forms a permanent relationship with someone the family disapproves of and will not accept. In this case, a decision of loyalty and primary affiliation may have to be made between family and relationship partner. In at least some of these decisions, greater long-term satisfaction would be achieved by severing family ties rather than abandoning a productive and happy romantic relationship.
When the primary purposes that a friendship, romantic relationship, or family relationship serve are not met, then the relationship is not serving the purposes for which you entered it (or were born into, in the case of family). It may be time to consider the advantages of ending the relationship.
The examples used above should not imply that one of the individuals has to be doing something wrong for dissolution to be an appropriate course of action—although it is easier to see the logic of dissolution when one of the individuals betrays a trust or is unfaithful or becomes abusive. But, there are legitimate reasons for dissolution even when neither party has done anything wrong. People may develop different needs during their relationship together that cannot be met within the confines of the present relationship. Likewise, changes in interests and goals, recognition of one’s true affectional orientation, or finding a greater love may all be legitimate reasons for relationship dissolution. Relationship dissolution should not imply that someone did something wrong; there is no reason to assume that it’s necessary for someone to do something wrong to warrant dissolving a relationship.
Conversely, it should not be assumed that because people stay together there is something noble about them or about their relationship. Long-lasting relationships are not necessarily better than relationships of short duration. We need not praise long lasting relationships, nor condemn short relationships. The length of time people stay in a relationship actually says little about the nature of the relationship. Dramatic examples of this are seen daily on Jerry Springer and Maury where people are in long-term relationships that most people would find repulsive. Less dramatic examples are likely to be found everywhere else.
And, of course, there are general benefits that need to be written into the equation. One obvious benefit is that you rid yourself of destructive influences; there seems little point in retaining relationships that are unproductive, unhealthy, and hurtful. Another benefit is that you probably have learned something from the experience that you can then apply to new and, ideally at least, more satisfying and more productive relationships. And, hopefully, you probably have had some time to get to know yourself a lot better.
At the same time, it needs to be recalled that we enter relationships for a variety of reasons and it may be worth the effort to repair the relationship to get back what we had originally. The difficulty with this “theory” is that we can never be sure if and when, in the face of repeated failures at attempts to repair the relationship, the next attempt wouldn’t succeed. So, at some point, it may be best to say, “I tried and now I need to move on.” Treating relationships as if they can be easily and appropriately discarded is unlikely to yield long-term benefits. Perhaps equally unlikely to yield long-term benefits, is remaining in unproductive and destructive relationships.
The decision to stay in a relationship that does not fulfill your needs or is destructive or to end the relationship is not an easy one to make, since so many factors come into play. Religious beliefs, the attitudes of family members and close friends, and the economic implications of staying together versus separating are just a few of the more obvious factors that would logically influence such decisions.