The Last Straw in Relationships

breakup at park bench

the last straw

(Note: Before reading the following—this is important, critical even—if you are in a relationship involving abuse, DO NOT leave without proper safety planning. The most dangerous time is in the act of leaving.)

What ends relationships? Why do we call it the last straw? Often, the final insult, the breaking point, is something relatively minor in comparison to everything that has preceded it. For many, it is the point at which we realize nothing is ever going to change, nothing is going to get better. We can remain stuck in this situation or we can leave, but there is no option that will make it better for us if we stay. We see that can only stand by while it deteriorates further. Staying, we realize, means giving up any hope of improvement.
We often think primarily in terms of intimate or romantic relationships, but this also applies to platonic ones, to professional and business ones—even to family members reaching a point where they become estranged. Think of the employer who has promised you a raise every six months for the past there years, and this time when the raise doesn’t come through you start looking for other work in earnest. You have reached the point where you know this employer’s word is meaningless. It may not even really be about the money, just that you see the lies for what they are. Or it may be your mother who has picked fights with you at every opportunity since you were eight years old (or younger), and this time it is an even smaller than usual argument, but you are now 56 years old and have sudden clarity about how you will spend your remaining years—in relationships that bring you joy instead of chronic conflict. You hang up the phone and decide not to call your mother again, and to keep conversation to a minimum if she calls you—if you decide to respond to her at all.
Partnerships frequently end over long-standing issues, and something has reached a point where you realize you are not partners any more, that you have been carrying way too much of the load for way too long. Or it is something that indicates a shift in your own dynamic.
One story comes to mind for me, which I read in a magazine decades ago; I do not remember the source. A woman reports having been physically abused for years by her spouse; he even broke her jaw. When she was in the hospital, a representative from a domestic violence shelter sought her out and gave her a card, yet the article’s writer returned to living with this man. Until she came home one day to find her son and daughter watching TV, and her daughter had a welt on one cheek. The son said “Mom, she wouldn’t watch what I wanted, so I had to hit her.” This woman packed up and left that day. She was willing to tolerate all manner of abuse, but would not stand for seeing that pattern continue with her children.
Sometimes it is an escalation in an ongoing dynamic. It can be the boyfriend who was verbally abusive, but suddenly it becomes physical. Or it can be the wife who cursed you routinely but always in private, and suddenly she does it in front of friends.
Often, though, it is actually something much lower key than what you have been tolerating on a daily basis, only this time something shifts in you and you realize that there is nothing you can do that will improve this person’s behavior. It may be fifth time this week that your significant other came home with alcohol on their breath; the other four times, they started yelling at you and throwing things, then vomited in the corner and stormed out. This time they just passed out and you had no mess to clean up. But it was one too many, and you spend the remainder of that night making your exit plans.
When is the best time to leave? Someone told me once that it is the time when you no longer want to be with that person, and the message I heard at the time was that it is not wise to decide based on a specific incident. I disagree with that last part, because those specific incidents are so telling. After all, how do we know who and what a person’s true character is if not by how they behave?

Divorce Counseling

gavelBack before the earth cooled, I had a marriage that was bringing me more distress than happiness. I knew there was no point in counseling, because I knew my then-spouse would not take part. Then he did attend one session; it did not go well. At this point, I decided I was on my own to figure things out.
I knew wrong. At that time, my sister wisely suggested that I could go alone and get counseling about whether to stay in the marriage. There were still a few hiccups. But by the time the divorce was in process, I wound up seeing a counselor who so impressed me that I still keep him on my referral list, 30-plus years later!
Anyone going through the breakup of a marriage should have two counselors: your counselor at law, otherwise known as your attorney, and a mental health counselor. Most of us know we can’t handle the legal intricacies (unless it is an exceptionally simple matter, and even then I am a believer that an attorney should prepare the paperwork). But when it comes to our own mental health, it is far too easy to say “I’ve got this.”
The reality is, this is a very stressful time. Even if you have mutually agreed on the split, there is a lot of pain involved, not to mention soul-searching, anger, sadness…take your pick, it’s a tangle of emotions. And it is easy to wear out your support people while letting off steam while dealing with those feelings.
I am not questioning anyone’s sanity, though utilizing a counselor may make holding onto that sanity a bit easier. I am suggesting that at such a stressful time, it is good to have a backup system, someone who will listen to you without feeling burdened.
When you are going through a divorce, you may find you suddenly have a few new “friends” hanging around who are actually vultures, feeding on your misery. A professional can help you keep these people at bay.
This process can also smooth the path for your dealings with your legal counselor, your attorney. Things go so much better if you can be calm and rational when you are preparing your legal case. The less time and money devoted to ranting instead of preparing your case, the better.
One common result of stress and/or trauma is: We act stupid. Exceedingly, uncomprehendingly stupid. Not always, but we are prone to that. Have you ever heard about people who go on very public rants, such as using Facebook, to badmouth their soon-to-be exes? This really doesn’t help anyone’s legal case. However, there is a place you can say any mean thing about that person you want, without exposing other loved ones to all that vitriol. (There is an obvious exception here: We are required to report if you express an intent to cause anyone harm, including yourself. So please, utilize your time to ensure that you don’t have a desire to cause injury.)
There is no shame in seeking help. No one thinks twice about hiring an attorney, and I am an avid believer in taking an equal interest in your own emotional survival while you navigate this process.