Amirah and Galen are arguing again. This time, Amirah announces that she intends to go to prayer meeting at the mosque whether Galen approves or not, and Galen is welcome to come along if she wants. As usual, Galen has a reason to stay behind, and tries to convince Amirah to stay as well. To Galen’s surprise, Amirah continues to get ready, and soon pedals off on her bike.
Amirah struggles with Galen’s controlling behavior in their relationship. Some of her friends frown and tell her she should have left a long time ago. Part of Amirah agrees with them, and at the same time Amirah loves Galen and enjoys their time together. Every time she tries to decide firmly to go, or firmly to stay, she falls back into her internal struggle.
One boundary at a time
Recently, something shifted in Amirah. She told a couple of friends that, while she appreciates their concern, it hurts when they give her “shoulds” about her relationship. If they find it too hard to sit with her uncertainty, she won’t discuss the relationship with them any more.
One friend angrily refuses to see her now. Amirah grieves the loss, and mutters to herself that boundaries should be allowed in friendships.
While her friends see relationships as either abusive or not, Amirah knows she is not in physical danger, and the emotional danger is subtle, complicated by past bad relationships with painful endings. She has time to sit with both wanting to go and wanting to stay. She wants to make room for a new solution that avoids painting Galen as an evil to flee or fight.
Room to adapt
Instead of trying to make a big final decision, Amirah looks inside for what she wants and needs, and finds the simplest steps to get there. She disengages from arguments, goes to the events she wants to attend, and continues to spend time with Galen.
As Amirah steps back from their usual dance, Galen has room to make her own decisions. She may adapt and learn to behave in a less controlling way. She may decide to leave now that Amirah is more assertive. Or Galen may remain unchanged, and Amirah might reach a point where she is done, or she might decide the relationship works well enough as it is.
From inside the relationship, Amirah has no way to predict how she will feel outside it. She might feel abandoned and ashamed for months, as she has after past breakups. She might feel light and relieved and happy. Her world might feel small, closed down by grief, or expansive, opened wide with new possibilities.
Over time, Amirah realizes that gaslighting is the biggest problem in the relationship. When she takes time to listen inside for her boundaries and preferences, she feels clear, calm, solid. After a conversation with Galen, she feels confused and self-critical, as if her perceptions do not make sense and her wants are wrong. Her preference becomes to spend less time with Galen, and she explains why.
When gaslighting continues despite several conversations about it, Amirah feels clear that she is done. During the breakup, they do their best to be kind to each other. Amirah experiences a mixture of grief and relief outside the relationship. Instead of feeling ashamed of a “failure”, she feels proud that she made room to stay connected with Galen, and at the same time stayed centered in her own wants, needs, and perceptions.
Amirah finds that her boundaries have grown stronger through her practice of sitting with uncertainty, and taking steps to fulfill her wants and needs as they become clear. Like her disgruntled friend, not everyone is comfortable with the change. When the dust settles, she has fewer friends, a different job, and a continuing willingness to speak her truth.
Patience with uncertainty
As an outside observer, we might have strong opinions about what someone “should” do. They should obviously leave, because we see signs of abuse. They should obviously stay, because we see the benefits they receive. They should make a decision, because it is painful for us to see them uncertain and hurting. When we are the ones wondering whether to end a relationship, we internalize those judgmental voices.
From inside a relationship, as much as we want clarity now, we also have many reasons to stay. We might need to hear validation that certain behaviors are abusive, and that we deserve better. We might need to gather internal and external resources in preparation for leaving. We might need to patiently spend time listening to the parts in us that are done, and the parts in us that are not.
We tend to think of endings as being sudden, acrimonious, and final. While some are, we can often negotiate a more gradual change, or come to a mutual agreement that a situation is no longer a good fit. Some endings look sudden, but have built up over time, like a fraying strap that holds on until the final thread snaps.
We do not need to label a situation as abusive to leave. Sometimes, avoiding strong labels like “abusive” can make it easier to sense what we want and need, and make room for uncertainty.
Sometimes, the abusive label does fit, and it is validating to apply it to subtle situations. Abusive situations are rarely all bad, and rarely match our internal picture of “typical” abuse. Abuse happens in all sorts of relationships between all sorts of people. Our preconceptions about abuse get in the way of recognizing it when we feel or see it. Abuse causes a sense of shock at being treated as less than a whole, valued person. It can range from overt violence to subtle, corrosive disrespect.
After leaving, the situation often looks different from the outside. There might be immediate relief from ongoing difficulties that had become background noise. For example, getting away from negative feedback can be unexpectedly powerful. There might be recognition of benefits that had also faded into the background. We might breathe more freely once a decision is no longer hanging over us.
Are you happy with how you navigate endings in your life? Most of us wish we could handle them more skillfully, with more compassion for ourselves and everyone else involved. We want permission to be angry, without resorting to violence. We want to walk away with confidence that those left behind will find their way.
We want to step lightly through minefields of old griefs and abandonments, while honoring present losses. We want to gracefully admit external defeat, and celebrate our internal successes around boundaries, self-care, and shifting out of old patterns.
We want gentle transitions, with a minimum of pain. We want to move smoothly away from identifying with what is ended, while making space to discover new or forgotten identities.
Rework an ending
While we cannot change the past, we can change how we carry our memories. Allow a past ending to come to mind, along with everything about it that makes you smile or wince. Say hello to its particular texture in your body.
How would you like this ending to be different? What would make it easier to carry? Take some time to invite in support you needed then, whether from your present self or some other assistance. What form does it take? Sense into how your body responds to the altered narrative. The changed texture in your body is yours to keep.
Interrupt existing patterns
CranioSacral Therapy helps the body find a new, healthier pattern of movement by gently preventing the current pattern. Held still and deprived of its habitual path, the body finds a new path with fewer restrictions. Sitting patiently with confusion or uncertainty serves a similar purpose. We interrupt our usual patterns, and wait for a new pattern to gradually emerge.
Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk is about self-care around trauma work. The techniques of self-inquiry, presence, boundaries, and incremental change apply just as well to endings as to working with trauma.