In or Out, Stay or Go: Finding the Line

I’ve had these two beautiful, conflicting songs in my head lately:

And it’s so hard to do
And so easy to say
But sometimes, sometimes you just have to walk away

— “Walk Away,” Ben Harper

And don’t be acting halfway
When you know we’re all the way.

— “ All the Way,” Eric Clapton

Where does the line exist for me?

The line demarcating acceptable and not, tolerable or not, good enough and not enough. The line between choosing to stay, and choosing not to.

The line that leads away from the Clapton song, and towards the Ben Harper one. It’s noble and fulfilling to hew to Clapton’s vision, but it can’t exist without the real possibility, the truth, the acknowledgment of the Ben Harper one.

Not every argument or fight between you and your significant other is a State of the Union of the relationship. Bad days can lead to bad weeks to bad months and even that, as unpleasant as it is, does not have to mean The End.

Choose your metaphor: a bank account. The building or dismantling of a wall. The depositing into or withdrawal from a well. A gas tank that is full, or dangerously close to empty.

At some point, the well will run dry, the car will run out of gas. To pretend otherwise is to be foolish, naïve and self-defeating. I’ve been driving for three decades, and I’ve run out of gas zero times. Because I pay attention, because I care, because I know I don’t want to be stranded, unable to move.

In love, however, I let the needle move, over and over and over again. And that has to stop. Or does it?

The signs were more than there, but I chose to ignore them. Or worse: I saw them, and decided to accept them, to acquiesce, for what I thought was a greater good.

The declaration of the end of sex. The move into separate bedrooms. The casual deconstruction of a shared life until finally we no longer lived together, and the path to divorce was finalized.

And through that process and for a long time after, I still didn’t believe that our complete separation, the dissolution of our marriage, the divorce, was the right path for us. We could have figured it out, I told myself. We could have, should have stuck it out. That things, somehow, would get better.

In the therapy and introspection that followed, I learned I was wrong. That as we were operating and functioning, we could not continue.

We both needed to change in order to transform what we had into a mutually beneficial and satisfactory relationship — and that we were both, individually and as a couple, unable to enact that change.

So I was left asking myself, in addition to how I could have acted differently, how I could have seen things more clearly, how I could have listened and taken to her heart her multiple requests for change. Why did I not do those things? And why I did not ask for any changes from her?

I had no line. I had no boundary. I had no cut-off between acceptable and unacceptable. I was in, all the way, regardless, unconditionally. And it cost me, and us, heartache, pain and despair. And so much time.

Our love for our parents, children, siblings and even friends can be unconditional.

But as much as we may want romantic love to be like that, the truth is, we can always walk away from those relationships, at any time, for whatever reason.

Sometimes we might walk away by mistake and live with regret for that decision. But we stay in romantic relationships by choice. The act of staying may be an act of love, it might even be a choice made for economic or logistical reasons, but it is a choice nonetheless.

To choose to stay when we may not want to is an act of love toward the other person. Choosing to walk away when we can no longer stay is an act of love toward ourselves.

I don’t know how long it has taken or will take you, but it’s taken me decades to realize that I must choose myself first because only I can define what will satisfy me, what will make me happy.

To mindlessly accept the pain when we don’t have to, to blindly hope for change when it’s apparent it is not coming, to stay when the wrong lines have been crossed at all or crossed too often, sets you up consistent unhappiness and disappointment.

Disappointment results from many things, but one constant is the failure of reality to meet expectations or desires.

You wanted this but got that. You expected one sort of response to choose to stay when we may not want to is an act of love toward the other person. Choosing to walk away when we can no longer stay is an act of love toward ourselves. but received another.

You can change your standards, you can evolve your demands, you can compromise your expectations.

And you can bend and bend and bend…but they must have a breaking point.

It’s unfortunately true that our loved ones will at times disappoint us. It’s also true that we will disappoint them…and ourselves. Well, we’re stuck with ourselves. But we aren’t stuck with someone else.

I’m not one for ultimatums. I’m not one for threats. But I am one for truth, honesty, self-reflection.

There is the only person who can guard and protect my heart. There is only one person who can set the line for what I will accept or not accept. For what I will forgive or not forgive. And for how often, and for how many times.

Me.

The irony is, in being accountable to myself, I am actually holding my partner accountable for her actions and behavior. Not so much standing up for myself, but defining what it is I want, what I need, how much of both, what I can compromise on, and what I can’t.

No one wants to be in a relationship with a looming threat they and their partner might leave any day. Part of the joy of a relationship is the security of commitment.

And it’s OK to sacrifice. And to forgive. And of course to live and learn, and to allow that of your partner. I’ve found one of the most meaningful elements of being in a long-term relationship is the growth you do as individuals and as a couple.

No couple can survive the burden of constant existential questioning: should we or shouldn’t we? The constant, looming presence of that questioning is probably a bad sign.

But that questioning should still exist, in the form of communicating with your partner where you are in terms of happiness, frustrations, needs and desires.

It can be overwhelming to always ask, should we be doing this? But it can be quite healthy to ask, how can we be doing this better?

I want to always be there for my partner. I want to dig in, to figure it out, to keep going, for the sake of what is good, for the beauty and magic of love.

In communicating with your partner, honesty is paramount. But not as much as honesty with yourself can be — and acknowledging your own state of the union.

It’s impossible to see into the future and wonder if your choice to stay or leave is the right one. Truth is, there are always pros and cons to all of our decision.

But a decision is made, everyday, when you are in a relationship. Don’t just trust your partner’s choice. Trust your own — and know that you have the power to choose not just what is best for you and what you want, but what exactly those things are.

Are you getting those things? Are you getting enough things? If you aren’t, can you ask for them? If you can ask for them, will you receive them? If asked in return, can you provide them?

Within the answers to those questions lies the roadmap you need.

Previously published on Medium.com.

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