When is a Relationship Officially Over?

When people tell me that they no longer have a relationship with someone, I know this is untrue. No matter how great the gap that divides two people, no matter how vitriolic or rare their interactions, even if these interactions are basically non-existent, the truth is that the relationship persists. It may not be a great relationship or be particularly rewarding for either member, but it continues to be there, if only barely, nonetheless.

This is especially true, of course, with family members. Our mother is always our mother, our father our father, our child our child, our sibling our sibling. Throughout even the most turbulent and rocky of times, these relationships continuously remain. To a lesser extent, this is even true with our former romantic partners or friends. We continue to share relationships with these people as well, as exactly that, former romantic partners or former friends. We still have relationships with every single person we have ever encountered in life.

Whenever someone tries to “end” a relationship, they’re seeking an unobtainable goal and denying the reality that this relationship will continue—in one form or another—for “as long as you both shall live”. Sure, you may no longer have much (if any) direct contact with a certain individual, but the relationship is still there, a link in the ethers connecting you both to one another. Undoubtedly, every once in a while, evidence of this arises. This person will cross your mind, and sometimes you will cross theirs. You and this person will forever share a connection, even if it is not much of a connection, that can never be fully dismantled.

Relationships don’t end; they transform.

Once you understand this, you can recognize that, whenever a relationship seems to end, it is actually transforming. And this transformation can only occur in one of two directions: either into something better (a relationship founded on understanding, affection, gratitude, and connectedness) or something worse (a relationship founded on misunderstanding, animosity, resentment, and estrangement). When these alone are the options, why does anyone ever choose transformation for the worse over transformation for the better? Well, because they don’t realize that they have a choice in the matter. They believe, falsely, that “ending” the relationship is their only recourse, although, as I already mentioned, this option isn’t actually on the table.

Paradoxically, some of the strongest relationships we maintain are with those we refuse to have a relationship. Perhaps we feel wronged by a certain person or resent someone for the heartache we feel. We might decide it’s “too painful” to have relationships with certain people and then push them away, erecting barriers between ourselves and them. Although, as a result, we probably don’t see much of these people any more, for some reason, unwelcomed memories of them keep popping up, reminding us of our enduring displeasure. These unresolved relationships “stick in our craw” and feel miserable sometimes. Why does this happen? Because the relationship never ended; it just transformed for the worse. We keep lugging this person around with us, when long ago we decided we would prefer to let go. And let go we can, but only when we transform the relationship for the better instead.

The quality of any relationship is defined less by our specific interactions with a particular person—how often we speak to one another or spend time together in person—and more by the emotions and perceptions we carry around with us about this person or our past (and present) relationship with them. Our attitude is what most dictates whether the relationship persists in a healthy or unhealthy way. To allow a relationship to transform into something healthy, we can choose to change our relationship to the relationship, in both its past and present incarnations. If we don’t, the relationship stays stuck, lingering as a relationship that, when it “ended”, transformed for the worse.

Relationships “end” by one of three ways: by our decision alone, by another person’s decision alone, or by mutual agreement. Mutual agreement most easily allows for a relationship to transform for the better. You probably have an experience with this yourself. You and a partner, once upon a time, mutually agreed to part ways. As such, you have no fears about running into this person in public or crossing paths again. You know the chance encounter would be perfectly friendly. This is a relationship transforming for the better. But what about the other two cases? What happens when mutuality is lacking?

Love is not possessive; it’s permissive. If someone wants to leave a relationship with you, but you want them to stay, you can help this person investigate whether this is truly what they want. If it is, then there’s no sense bargaining with them or trying to convince them otherwise. You can still achieve mutuality. How? Not by trying to change what it is they want, but by changing what it is you want.  If you know that they want to leave, then you give them permission, and want the same thing. You want them to leave, because this is what they want. By agreeing in this way, as difficult as this may be, then the relationship can transform into something new, something perhaps even better.

If you are able to give permission to others to be who they are and to want what they want—without judgment, complaint, or criticism—then you will be able to take responsibility for your own joyfulness and maintain a healthy relationship with them regardless, even if it is not exactly the type of relationship you were hoping to share. If they want to leave, you lovingly let them. Giving permission, you respect another person’s freedom and honor who they are, embracing them completely. Instead of resenting them or harboring grudges, you extend kindness and understanding toward them in a heartfelt way, knowing that you do not “need” them to be actively present in your life for you to be happy. Might you be sad to see them go? Of course. But you can turn that sadness into greater intimacy if you keep your affection alive, rather than distorting into any animosity or bitterness. If you think you’ll be protecting yourself by hating someone, you’re wrong. You’d just be creating unnecessary suffering for yourself and prohibiting the relationship from transforming into new form, a form that has the potential to be as equally vibrant as that which you initially desired, if not more so.

The same is true when you are the one who decides to leave a relationship. You can give yourself permission, relinquishing any guilt or shame, because you cannot control what it is that you genuinely want. With tenderness, you can explain your decision in a way that exempts the other person from blame and then offer your continued friendship to this person, giving them permission to reject or embrace it according to their own desires and abilities.  If they hold onto resentment or anger at you, deciding to push you away, then you give them permission for this as well, knowing that they simply do not know how to relate to you in this alternate way, at least not yet. In time, this may change, or it may not. Either way, you keep giving permission for the person to be as they are, embracing them (and yourself) fully at every stage of your respective journeys.

Relationships are valuable things, perhaps the most valuable gifts that any of us receive in our lives. Knowing this, you can make a choice to value the gifts you’ve been given and the people with whom these gifts are shared. Take a moment to think about the state of your many relationships right now. How are they doing? Do any of them leave a sour taste in your mouth, including some of the more ancient ones? Are you tricking yourself into thinking that some of these relationships have ended when actually they haven’t, when they’ve only transformed for the worse? If so, you can do something about this. You can aspire to transform your relationships for the better instead.