Chances are, you’ve thought about it. Everyone has, at one time or another. There you are, standing in the wake of a major argument or because you’re bummed about a work situation, and you think to yourself, ‘What would happen if I left?’ According to Evie Shafner, a marriage and family therapist and one of the founders of the Los Angeles Women’s Therapy Center, such thoughts are common. Fights happen. Stress piles up. We look into the world and wonder what other lives are out there. It doesn’t make you a monster. And, in some cases, your thoughts can even be a source of humor once the argument has cooled off (Note: really cooled off).
But how much is too much to think about leaving your partner?
Before we get into that, Shafner has a very important warning: Never, ever use the threat of leaving as any kind of a weapon or bargaining chip in an argument. Thinking them is one thing, but uttering them aloud is something else entirely. Phrases such as, “I’m leaving!” or telling your partner to get out should only be used in very specific circumstances. “You may feel better in a bit, and apologize, but those words create tears in the fabric of our relationships, and after a while no apology repairs the tear,” she says. “The words stay, and emotional safety leaves.”
Now, onto the thinking. It’s not the if you do the thinking that matters as much as the when. Shafner says that the key to knowing when the idea of leaving is a reaction to the stress of the moment or an indicator of a deeper problem is to examine your emotions with your rational brain, not when you’re keyed up and emotional.
“Lashing out when we are in pain is coming from what is called the ‘Toddler Brain’ or fight or flight part of the brain,” she explains. “So we need to wait until we can access the discerning adult brain to ask ourselves if we really want to leave.”
If you do think about leaving your partner when you’ve had time to think about the situation removed from the moment of stress, well, that might be a telling sign.
How, then, do we know when it’s just the toddler brain talking and when it’s really time to think about getting out of the relationship? Shafner says to consider these things:
Do you believe this person will be there for you?
Even though you’ve had disagreements, blowups, and shakeups, when it really comes down to it, will this person be there for you when you need them? Can you rely on them? Do they have empathy and caring for you and your needs? If not, then it might be time to reevaluate the relationship. “I always say to my clients, ‘If you don’t have empathy, you don’t have anything,’” says Shafner. “To me, it’s like living without air or water.”
Are you living your best life?
Is the person you’re with bringing out the best in you? Are you being kept from doing the things you want to do? If not, are you afraid to voice that to them? “If we are in fear of speaking because we will be rejected, or in fear we don’t have our partner’s approval, that is life-extinguishing,” Shafner says.
Have you examined your own expectations?
What are you hoping to get out of the relationship, and what are you willing to put into it? You can’t put it all on your partner. You can’t expect your partner to always be there for you, and never allow that road to go both ways. “We need to accept that our partner is a different person,” Shafner says, “that they can’t be our only source of okay-ness. We have to be okay in ourselves.”
Outside of an abusive relationship, which you should leave immediately, Shafner says the desire to want to leave in a moment of stress is natural. But if, when the smoke clears, you don’t believe that your partner is really not someone who has your back, then you have to consider if the feeling is more than a fleeting one.
This is heavy, go-sit-on-a-park-bench-and-think-about-it-for-hours stuff. And can be admittedly difficult if there are still feelings there, something Shafner likens to the torture of wanting something and not wanting it at the same time. But, she says, you have to ask yourself hard questions and then accept the answers, no matter how difficult.
“If in your adult discerning mind — not the reactive moments — you know in your heart of hearts that this relationship doesn’t help you live your best life,” she says, “then you know what you need to do.”