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?

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