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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak

When a Relationship Fails, Who Rejected Whom?

When a relationship ends, we expect it to be fairly easy to determine who ended it and who wished it to continue: the person who said they wanted out, who explicitly called for the break up, who bought a new apartment and who might be on the search for a new partner is evidently the one who ended things – and the one who proposed remaining together, who argued for giving it another shot and who said loudly they had no wish whatsoever to break up is just as evidently the one who remained loyal.

But this may be a rather naive and unwittingly rather cruel view of how relationships can end. It isn’t – in reality – the one who leaves who is necessarily doing the rejecting, nor the one who ostensibly seeks to remain who is the one being rejected. The person who really ‘leaves’ is the one who withdraws love. And the one who really ‘remains’ is the one who believes in closeness but would in extremis prefer to be alone than suffer the denial of their hopes. 

Beneath the distinction between leaving and staying lies a more important distinction still, between loving and indifference. Though one could imagine that leaving would go with with indifference and staying would go with love, one might seek to keep a relationship going and yet still be subtly indifferent to one’s partner or feel the urge to leave while still craving a love that never comes.

Oddly perhaps, many people who are emotionally or physically unavailable in relationships are for that matter extremely keen for their relationships to continue. They may say quite clearly that they don’t want matters to end. But to the profound puzzlement of their partners, their day to day behaviour expresses something rather different; their manner may be distant, their caresses few, their physical attentions negligible.

The double-speak can drive the other partner to the brink of a breakdown, for they are being told that what they long for is available even as the practical evidence points to the contrary. There is always a reason why it’s too late for sex or a hand isn’t there to hold – but to complain is invariably to meet with anger and denial. Not only is the partner neglected, they are made to feel increasingly insane for believing they might be so.

Eventually, worn down by the dissonance between word and deed, the emotionally ignored party may lose their temper and declare that they are off, not because they truly want to be, but because they’ve been forced to conclude with considerable dismay that their partner will never be able to recognise their needs as would be appropriate. They are leaving not because they don’t love but because the love they have to give doesn’t feel as if it will ever be answered.

It’s the ultimate burden that the rejected partner not only has to bear the sadness of being turned down, they also have to bear the guilt of having ended the relationship in the face of a host of protestations of loyalty. To spare themselves the ravages of self-hatred, the departing lover should daily rehearse in their minds how they got to this particular place. They retain so much love for their partner, they simply can’t subscribe to the barren vision of coupledom on offer. Their real message as they head for the door is not ‘I am leaving you because I hate you’ but ‘I am leaving you because I love you so much and have tried so hard, too hard, to elicit a matching love which never came.’ 

Such an awareness won’t dull the pain but it will correctly repatriate emotions and alleviate an unfair burden of responsibility. One is leaving perhaps; but one simultaneously deserves all the sympathy and compassion due for someone who has at heart been gruesomely – but surreptitiously – rejected.

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