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Ending Relationships - Knowing When You Should Walk Away

By Hannah Smith,  Legends Report Writer

‘Walk away from the practise of pleasing people who choose to never see your worth.’ - Dodinsky, author

The World of Relationships:

As humans, our identities are constructed through our relationships. We are social creatures, and we spend much of our lives using our bonds with others to understand happiness and how to be the best version of ourselves. As babies, our first experience of expressing emotion is by mirroring the faces of our parents. We learn from one another and inspire one another. Having somebody close to our heart to share our emotions with is what makes them real and eternal.

‘Happiness is something that multiplies when it is divided’ -- Paulo Coelho

When I mention the word ‘relationship’ throughout this article, the word is being used as an umbrella term to refer to many different bonds we have with others throughout our lives. This includes friendships, romantic relationships, family bonds and other more formalised examples, such as professional relationships and bonds in the workplace. All of these different types of relationships hold their weight in our lives, but just as they can affect us positively they can also be very damaging.

Nowadays we have more potential than ever to reach out into the world and discover bonds with people from all over. With the improvement of technology and cultural education, we can learn to form relationships with so many different people, but with that power and freedom, there is a price.

We live in a world where loneliness is becoming an ultimate penalty in our minds, the worst possible state for somebody to be in. As we are able to form relationships with different people more easily, there can be cases where these bonds mean less. It becomes less about having a relationship with somebody to progress the wellbeing of both parties, and more of a relationship out of convenience -- because it is better than being alone. 

It is easy to go online and find a community of people to have relationships with,  but we can often lose sight of why we are reaching out to others and what the point of having a relationship with them is. As we lose sight of what makes our attachments healthy and fulfilling, it creates more opportunities for toxicity and unhappiness to take residence in our bonds. We put up with unhappy relationships with people who do not offer us or themselves respect because it is better than being lonely.

Children and teenagers are growing up in a world where they can form friendships with a touch of their finger on a screen, and with this potential, there is also danger that they will not be able to understand when a relationship isn’t good for them. We learn how to act in relationships when we are young, and can form habits within unhealthy relationships that stay with us into our adult lives, and all because we didn’t know any better at the time. Being able to walk away from a relationship that is damaging is arguably more difficult than forming the relationship in the first place.

‘The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.’ -- Henry David Thoreau

How do we know when to walk away? How can we understand what relationships help us and which hold us back? Also, how do we know the line between supporting somebody and propping them up at the expense of our own wellbeing? Lastly, how do we help our young people to understand these things too?

The Media: Romanticising The ‘Savior’

It’s the 21st century; the media is one of our educators now, and we learn so much about the world around us and how to act within relationships from what the internet, television and other forms of art tell us. Media is a powerful tool to educate us, but like any tool, it can be used in harmful ways. This applies especially to young people, especially children, who have not known a time without social media. A key way that our young people connect and form relationships is now online, especially in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, and there are a lot of worries that perhaps they are not learning how to detect healthy and unhealthy relationships online.

We spend our lives processing new relationships and understanding where to draw our lines in terms of boundaries and mutual respect. When we don’t learn the paradigms of healthy bonds with others from a young age, it can often skew the perspective we have of relationships later on in life. 

For young people, especially in the age of social media, it is hard to learn these healthy boundaries and understand our own needs, and there is a rising worry that young people aren’t learning these healthy habits, as described by author Roselyn Sword: 

‘adolescents, in particular, tend to be more accepting of relationship abuse [...] lead[ing] to children and young people finding it difficult to judge behaviour as abusive.’

The media can be harmful for young people because it warps their idea of healthy relationships and what is defined as respectful behaviour, and this is not just limited to social media. This is particularly clear in media directed specifically to young people, such as romance novels and television. Typical character archetypes in ‘YA Fiction’ indicate that one person in a relationship (normally romantic) must be readily available to commit themselves to a struggling other half, that they must be there to ‘save’ that person. Without the commitment of that person, their partner would be a danger to themselves or others.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with a bit of sappy romance with high stakes. But for a young person who is learning to deal with new relationship dynamics, this can be damaging. To be told that you are the only thing that can save somebody, that they could possibly harm themselves or others without you, is a lot of pressure. 

When this type of media is specifically aimed towards young people, it is inevitable that it may teach them that they should be readily available for new partners or friends and prioritise saving them. There is nothing wrong with this type of media when consumed in context, but it should perhaps enforce a more positive perspective of relationships, one with boundaries that can teach our young people healthy relationship habits that will carry on into their adult lives.

‘Respect yourself enough to walk away from anything that no longer serves you, grows you, or makes you happy.’ -- Robert Tew, author

Recognising When To Walk Away

It’s hard to know when the right time is to give up on somebody, especially when they are in danger of being hurt, or even worse. If you broke off your relationship and then something happened to them, it would be hard not to feel responsible. I know this from my own experience of walking away from relationships and friendships. 

To explain the complexities of this idea further, I will tell a story about a friend of mine from years ago when I was a teenager. I knew them as a person with many wonderful attributes: intelligent, honest, and hilariously funny. Alongside this they also suffered greatly with their mental health. As it so often does, their mental health as well as some chronic physical pain, had culminated into a severe and debilitating drug addiction.

Their addiction was a result of misdiagnosis and lack of treatment for mental health, and a severe physical issue that was dealt with from a young age with strong prescription painkillers. Basically, their drug addiction was a result of a series of contributing factors that were not dealt with properly when they were younger, and so they found their only way of coping was through self-medicating. It is important to make sense of why people would turn to drug addiction because it is often a very complex journey of negative coping cycles and a lack of a support group. 

My friend was many things outside of their addiction, and had many aspects of their character that were still untouched by their health problems and negative coping strategies. I saw the character that was still there underneath it all and I honestly thought that they would recover and overcome their addiction in the end and that I could help them do this.

‘Addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you -- it’s the cage you live in’ -- Johann Hari, author

Even though it doesn’t feel like it at the time, being a teenager is still such a young age to be. I thought I was doing the right thing by supporting my friend and not confronting their toxic habits, but was naive in doing so. We should always be there to support our loved ones, but when the issue at hand is one to do with mental health or drug addiction, we cannot expect ourselves to be what that individual needs to recover well. I was under the impression that my friendship and support would be enough to help them, but there was no magic wand moment, no sudden switch in their mind that made them believe in themselves the way I did.

People with serious mental health problems need professional help, if they are able to get it. Unfortunately we live in a world where it is hard to get this help, but that still doesn’t mean that we as loved ones should put ourselves into the position of therapist or counsellor.

My friend sank lower and lower into their mental health and addiction until they became a damaging presence in my physical life and on my own mental health. It took a long time for me to understand that I needed to leave the friendship for my own wellbeing, as my friend wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt me. I eventually decided I needed to step back and end our friendship and although it wasn’t my intention, I never spoke to them again. A few years later they passed away due to complications from their addiction.

Understanding And Contextualising Guilt

We do not always get closure when we choose to end a relationship, and it is hard. It is natural, when things go wrong and a tragedy happens, to wonder what we could have done differently and how we could have saved that person. That guilt is hard to control. We know logically, that a person has to want to get better for it to happen, and that no one person is expected to be responsible for the wellbeing of another. But it doesn’t stop us from feeling that guilt and wondering what we could have done to save them.

When I was at my friend's funeral, I felt almost as if I was an imposter, like somebody would point me out and say that I abandoned them when things got rough. In my logical mind I knew that their family would welcome any friends, and besides, I’m sure something like that wouldn’t be at the forefront of their minds at a time like that. But the feelings of guilt were overwhelming. I looked around at their family and loved ones, at their mother and father and siblings, and I felt like I had let them down by turning my back from our friendship. I almost didn’t go to the funeral because of these feelings of guilt and skewed sense of accountability. I’m glad I did.

Deciding to end our friendship is something that still haunts me, and I think there will always be guilt inside me for the rest of my life. Luckily I have a support network of loving friends and family members around to help me remind myself that I am just one imperfect person trying to keep up with my own life. But not all young people have access to that same support.

Guilt can ruin a person's self-esteem, and for young people it is so hard to know the line between what they can do for somebody and what they think they should be doing. I feel that in the past few years there has been more widespread awareness about ‘toxic’ relationships, how to detect them, and to feel empowered to leave them behind. It is good to see this emphasis on self-respect within relationships and that it is okay to cut people out if they are damaging you. 

But I think there is still not enough being said about the aftermath of a decision to walk away from a relationship, because it is not always a clear cut decision where somebody is in the right and somebody is in the wrong. It is hard to walk away from people, especially when they are desperately sick with their mental health or struggling with an addiction. It is the right decision to prioritise your own wellbeing, but it doesn’t stop the guilt that you may feel from that decision.

In the case of my friend, they were very ill. They did not intend to be damaging to me, it was just another negative repercussion of their illness and inability to seek lasting help. I know now that I was right to walk away from the relationship, but I know that my friend was not a bad person and didn’t deserve the life they ended up with. So as well as raising awareness of negative relationships and how to detect them, I feel that young people would benefit from support after they have walked away from a ‘toxic’ person -- it is not always clearcut, and we are just humans at the end of the day.

Preparing Our Young People For The World of Relationships

Luckily, there is an increasing amount of advice for parents, carers and young people themselves when it comes to dealing with toxic relationships, in order for young people to understand how they should act when they are a part of a negative bond with somebody. There are many organisations that are trying to raise awareness about the dangers that young people can face if they are unsure of their boundaries and healthy relationship models, such as the Poe Centre for Health Education: ‘Children want to know about how to love and be loved. You cannot talk about one without the other.’ Although this particular article discusses these ideas in a romantic setting, the advice they give can be applied to all manner of relationships that young people go through. 

I feel that in my own experience I would have benefitted from the advice of an organisation, or even somebody who could help me understand how to deal with my friend. I was just a teenager, I didn’t know how to help somebody with a drug addiction and I felt at the time the best policy was to support them in a way that wouldn’t threaten them. I was worried that if I interrogated them about their drug use that they would build up defenses and that I was another person that they couldn’t rely on. They didn’t want to stop self-medicating, and I didn’t want to put them in an ultimatum. I know now that despite my best intentions, my actions were essentially enabling them to continue further into their addiction. Issues of this severity are a lot for any person to handle, especially young people. To make them aware of healthy relationship paradigms will hopefully help them know how to handle them a little better, and get the help that both people in the relationship need.

‘It is praiseworthy to associate with people whose lives would be improved if they saw your life improved.’ -- Jordan B. Peterson

I do not want the story about my friend to be used as a cautionary tale, because I do not want them to be limited to their illness in the perspectives of others. Again, there was a lot more to them than their illnesses and those are the things I like to remember about them. I included this story because my own experience in walking away could be used as an insight into learning to respect yourself in your relationships, no matter how much the other person is struggling. 

One of the most confusing things in the world is leaving behind somebody that you love whilst knowing that they love you back. But love and happiness are not the same thing and are not mutually exclusive, and it's a hard decision to make when you have to choose between the two. But in order to be the best person you can be, both for yourself and for others, you have to give yourself the consideration to step back, establish your own boundaries and prioritise your happiness. We are not alive to live for somebody else, we are supposed to share all the ups and downs of existence together in equal and mutual respect.

Learn more about relationships and how to establish your boundaries at The Legends Report, where there are counselling and mentor groups available to help young people know how to construct positive bonds with others.

Here's a video of  Jordan Peterson talking about how to handle toxic relationships for further guidance:

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