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The Not So Gentle Art of Letting Go

This article was first published in Divorce Magazine, Winter 2001.

“I’ll consider not proceeding with the divorce if my spouse will show some sign of commitment – to me, to having children, to a career, to not spending so much money, to something, to anything.”

“She ended the relationship so abruptly that I found myself out of our house in less than a week. During the past three months, she has been able to live in it. Maybe we can talk about who gets the house if she moves out for three months while I live there.”

“I don’t care who he dates. But if he wants to see our child, he has to stop exposing him to those sexually provocative bimbos he finds so attractive.”

If, if, if…

These are real statements from three different divorce/dissolution cases – one heterosexual marriage, one heterosexual non-marriage and one same gender union. If you can’t tell which is which, don’t worry. When it comes to letting go, neither sexual orientation nor legal standing change the emotions of the situation. If one partner keeps making demands, the other partner will keep fighting back. The result is a perpetuation of their relationship’s downward spiral. If the partners are ever to move on in their lives, this tug-of-war must stop.

Failed Expectations

Downward spirals are a mediator’s bread and butter. We enter into relationships when the parties can no longer communicate with each other and are looking for someone to help them. As I’ve watched relationships come apart and helped sort out the issues involved, I’ve developed some basic observations about how and why we come together as well as what must be done in order to move on.

Initially, we enter our intimate relationships with certain expectations of who the other person is and what our time together will be like. But many of these expectations are really just our own needs projected onto our loved one. When s/he turns out not to be what we imagined and the relationship looses its “romance,” we become disappointed. At this point (usually six months into the relationship), we can either leave and find someone new, stay and negotiate in hopes of salvaging some of our expectations, make peace with ourself that this person is not who we imagined but is also not so bad and may even be better than what we expected, or wait and hope that the fantasy person will eventually emerge.

Many people choose either the first option – leave – or the last – wait. If they choose the latter, serious problems will develop because the relationship will be built on dreams and disillusionment, a lethal combination. As the years go by, the dissatisfied spouse gets angry and resentful. At the same time, s/he is afraid to leave the relationship because it’s better than going back into the marketplace. Yet, daily disappointments are a constant reminder that the relationship is not working. Some couples live this way for many years. For others, the pressure becomes too much.

If the relationship starts to break up and the couple is married or domestic partners, they are legally bound to each other and must follow a prescribed route in order to separate. If there are joint assets and debts that need to be distributed and/or parenting plans that need to be devised, it doesn’t matter if they are married, DP’d or just living together. The stage is set for demands like those at the beginning of this article.

Under the guise of seeking fairness or “seeing the right thing done,” one spouse threatens to exact some kind of penalty from the other. “Either you do such and such…or else you won’t get what you want.” Unfortunately, threats don’t work. They just make the other spouse hunker down, often eliciting counter-demands and further entangling both partners in a death dance of negative intimacy.

This is not to say there isn’t a time and place to make a reasonable demand. But these demands are not about being reasonable. These are about: 1) disillusionment over unfulfilled expectations , 2) self-anger for “being such an idiot,” and 3) grief over the loss of the imaginary relationship that never was and the real one that took its place. Something’s got to give if the situation is going to change. That “something” is letting go.

The Three Steps of Letting Go

The first step in letting go is acknowledging that your expectations were and still are unrealistic. Making demands and counter-demands won’t change a thing. Your partner was never thrifty, responsible, tidy, affectionate, committed, loyal, hot in bed, respectful, considerate, honest, stylish, buff, romantic, on-time, a generous mother, a caring father…fill in the blank. Ultimatums are not going to change this.

These demands must be seen for what they are which is not a pathway to “fairness” or “justice.” Instead, they are expressions of resentment, betrayal, disillusionment, rage, and anger – all valid feelings but not very productive ones. Feel them. Acknowledge that their cause is unrealistic expectations, anger and grief. Then move on to step two.

The second step is accepting that you are partially responsible for this situation. If you let go and stop making demands your spouse will never meet, you can stop punishing each other. In fact, there will be no reason to punish each other. But if you hang on to your anger and grief, it is you who wishes to continue this negative relationship. In other words, even if your spouse is the biggest jerk on the planet, it is you who is choosing to stay in this relationship. Accept that you are an active player and move on to the final step.

Once you acknowledge that your demands and expectations are unrealistic and accept your half of the responsibility for sustaining this relationship, all you need is permission to let go. So, give it. Then, with no effort at all, a kind of “falling away” of the downward spiral occurs as you find yourself moving up and out. Tears flow as you grieve the finality of this action and the loss this moment represents. But at the same time, a window opens in your heart and life energy begins to flow in and out again.

Decisions about assets and debts are easily made, support issues are resolved, and parenting plans are established with a minimum of conflict. The energy in the center of your life changes from negative to positive. A victim transforms into a hero/ine. You move beyond the limits you set for yourself. So liberating and fulfilling is this moment, you ask yourself, “Why did I wait so long?”

Clearly, letting go is not about giving up something. It’s about getting something back – namely, your life, your true self. You are no longer bound in a relationship that was pulling you down, fettered by unrealistic expectations, self-anger and unresolved grief. Now, unrestrained by chains of your own devising, you are free to become the authentic person you are, reclaiming the joy that is your birthright.


Barry Simon

Barry Simon is a conflict manager in private practice who has conducted mediations concerning community issues, divorce, same gender relationship dissolutions and workplace conflicts as well as facilitating meetings, coaching and training people in basic dispute resolution skills. MORE >

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