Ask Elizabeth: Can One Person Work on a Relationship

by | Ask Elizabeth


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Dear Elizabeth

My partner of 12 yrs decided over a period of the last 2 yrs that due to a plethora of reasons including thinking /deciding (on his own) that ‘we’ve grown apart’ and has moved out for almost a month now. He’s pretty adamant on sticking to his decision (wheres my say??) and that “as far as he is concerned we are over”. I know we’ve got a lot of issues but didn’t think it was to the point of him not wanting our marriage; or working things out; or even giving this one last chance with extra external assistance. I think he’s having his early 30’s ‘mid life crisis’, questioning his life and goals and dramatically blowing things out of proportion in the mean time, including leaving his wife (we have no kids). He is adamant (to the point of getting really irritated) that there is nothing (physical/emotional) going on between him and his close (younger female) friend – I think he either doesn’t know or is in denial. Anyway he’s been doing his ‘bachelor’ life thing for a month now, we used to have a friends with benefits agreement until he revoked it this week – he says it now feels not right / uncomfortable for him – he says he now wants to be just friends, not friends with benefits.

We’ve had a couple of meals together at my place but other than that he hasn’t wanted to be seen in public with me for the past 3 months as ‘it’s not right’, ‘its just awkward’, ‘don’t want you to have false hope’ … etc., all sorts of what I think are lame reasons. I have however just accepted them. He even told me that he’s not going to be actively looking for a new relationship but if an opportunity presents itself he’s not not-going-to see what will happen 🙁 (like, thanks for being honest but that sucks to hear …). Just this morning I received a txt from him saying to meet at a (pretty busy) cafe near by to pass a couple of items back to him. He seems to always limit the time I get to spend in his company. He’s not like other guys and tends to be more emotional. I REALLY want to give us one last shot, he doesn’t say anything or commit when I say this so I believe he doesn’t want to. We still txt semi regularly for people supposedly separated … I’m told this is weird. He also is adamant about not going to a marriage counselor. I’ve read that 1 partner can try on behalf the couple if they are willing to put in the extra effort (which I am), can that work?

I won’t deny that I’ve done my fair share of wrongs but I’m soooooo confused with this. What does this mean? A couple of days before he gave me a kiss on the cheek and multiple hugs (without me requesting for them, I was surprised). We’ve gone from lets have a break, to no this is over I’m not coming back, to I don’t know what now. Am I just reading too much into this? I’m working on salvaging my life and moving forward but this is just a constant state of confusion for this aspect of my life.
I’d really appreciate your insight to this 🙁 Thank you.

Thank you for your question.

What a heartbreaking time for you. Breakups are always so difficult; in my experience, it is very rare that a breakup is mutual. Generally, there is one partner who wants to leave and one partner who wants the relationship to continue. Unfortunately for you as the one who wants the relationship to continue you are powerless to do anything once your partner has decided to leave. I have worked with women who have been in your position. Women who have tried absolutely everything to convince their partner to stay and when the final decision comes and their partner decides he does want to go it is the most dis-empowering feeling in the world. As you say “what about my say’. Sadly you are left with no say as your partner has taken his option to leave the relationship. However, don’t think your partner is not suffering as well. As much as he has been the one to decide to go, most people carry tremendous guilt when they decide to end a relationship. It sounds to me like your partner has struggled with this decision.  


Working on a relationship looks like two people with an equal desire to do the hard work to restore their love and connection. I know there are therapists out there who will tell you that one person can work on a relationship, and you can take active steps to reach out to your partner to try and improve communication and connection. However, in my experience what happens is that the one party trying to work on the relationship slips into a desperate mode and the ‘working on’ turns into compromising boundaries, where they are willing to do anything to convince their partner to stay. This is not healthy as can become a form of chasing the relationship no matter what at the expense of your feelings.


It sounds to me like you have done everything you could to keep the connection, including allowing him to leave the relationship and still having a ‘friends with benefits” arrangement to try and hold on to him. In my experience, there are two edges to this approach. On the one hand, you can say you tried absolutely everything, on the other I have had clients so angry that they have compromised themselves so much to try and hold onto the relationship only to find that their partner has left anyway.


From reading what you have written to me, it sounds to me like your partner has made up his mind to go but has a deep affection for you. It is almost as if in his mind he loves you but perhaps too much has happened for him to feel as though he has enough goodwill to continue to work on the relationship. You holding on to him the way you have has perhaps made it harder for him to disengage, which of course was your objective, to give the relationship every chance. However what can happen is the partner who wants to leave is struggling with the guilt of being the one to end the relationship, then your availability can cause a prolonged and painful breakup because you keep coming back to him and he doesn’t know how to tell you it’s over.


My sense of it is that he does believe the relationship is over. However, because he has been in love with you at one time, he does still hold deep affection for you and guilt that he is hurting you by breaking up. I feel this is why he is hugging you and kissing you on the cheek, to me it explains the texting. Although he is making the decision to leave it doesn’t make this breakup any less painful for him, in fact, your partner is the one carrying the guilt of having made the decision to go.


It seems to me you have tried absolutely everything. I wonder if now is the time to respect your partner’s decision whether you believe it is right or wrong. It is your belief the relationship should continue, however, he is entitled to have his belief that the relationship really has come to its end.  What you need to decide is what your relationship looks like moving forward. Do you want to be just friends? Or is seeing him too painful for you? What you think about that is up to you.


Sometimes letting someone go is what we need to give them the pathway back. If he can have some space to experience life without you he may re-examine the relationship and decided he does want to try again – he may not. When we allow someone to leave, we aren’t saying to them that we want them to go. We allow them to leave in the knowledge that it is not what we want, but that ultimately we love them enough to want them to be happy.


What is important for you now is to process this relationship and understand fully what went wrong. This is important, both regarding knowing what you want in case he does come back, and so that you can grow in yourself and be in a good place for future relationships. Breakups are hard,  bring the focus back to you, as it feels as though you have been very focused on him at the expense of yourself.

Big Love,

Elizabeth R-J


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