“Ask Dr. Bukky” is ELIXHER’s bi-weekly column that offers advice to queer women of color on relationships and mental health wellness. Got a question you want Dr. Bukky to tackle in the column? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Dr. Bukky,
When do you know it’s time to walk away from a relationship?
Making the decision to walk away from a relationship can feel painful and scary. As a result, many individuals and couples do what is certainly understandable: either end a relationship on impulse, or avoid the decision and trudge along in relationships that are void of fulfillment, comfort or intimacy. Who can blame them? It is hard to consider ending a relationship after investing so much of your time, effort, and self in it. Even more, it is painful to experience the profound sense of loss that often comes with ending a relationship. Given all this, I commend you for asking this difficult question.
Simply stated, relationships require physical safety, emotional safety and commitment safety in order to thrive. Physical safety refers to your ability to trust that no physical harm or intimidation will befall you, no matter what the emotional climate is in the relationship. Emotional safety describes the sense of feeling loved and important to your partner and is the outcome of three factors: 1) accessibility—feeling like you can be open to your partner and show her your vulnerabilities; 2) responsiveness—feeling like you have impact on your partner and can rely on her to be there for you, to offer comfort and care especially when you need it; and 3) engagement—feeling like your partner values you and will stay emotionally present and close to you. Commitment safety is the confidence you feel knowing that your partner is in the relationship with you no matter what and is not going anywhere. Commitment safety is important, even if you and your partner identify as polyamorous or are in a non-monogamous relationship—primary relationships are established as such in order to explicitly foster a sense of commitment safety.
When these three forms of safety are operating in a relationship, both partners usually feel happy and satisfied. They are able to grow and enjoy deep intimacy with each other—they head for the zen of coupledom, what I call “couple actualization.” When there is conflict, they are able to repair and recover quickly. On the contrary, the absence of any of these factors starts to create an itch in at least one partner (if not both), and is the underlying source of most conflict—the hurricanes and tornadoes, the cat-mouse pursuit, and the deadly silence that can take over the relationship. It is what breeds the questions, “Are we compatible?” “Does she really love me?” “Does she value me?” “Is she committed to this relationship?” and “Is it time to walk away?”
If you feel confident that you and your partner are willing and capable of offering all these forms of safety to each other but just do not seem to know how to do so, then it is time to head to couple’s therapy, where you can learn how to give and receive these factors to and from each other. If it feels like one of you knows how to give them but the other just does not know how to receive them, it is time to head to couple’s therapy. If you are not sure whether or not you both can give and receive them, or if you are even willing to do so, then it is still time to head to couple’s therapy to get those answers.
However, if you are confident that you or your partner are not interested in offering these types of safety to each other and are not willing to learn how, then it is time to walk away. Relationships end when we can no longer afford to hope for change or, as Sue Johnson says, “when the time for willingness to trust and risk runs out.” In sum, when you or your partner are no longer willing to be open and vulnerable in your relationship, and are no longer looking to the other to fulfill your underlying attachment needs, the relationship is dead—even if your bodies are still present and walking around. If the both of you are not committed to offering each other the necessary safety the relationship needs to thrive, it is time to begin the mourning process. Unfortunately, no matter how much you wish for it, you just can’t make a dead plant grow.
I’d like to add an important caveat by explicitly stating that if you are in a relationship where you experience physical and emotional harm (e.g., you find your partner to be physically or verbally abusive), it is time to walk away. Actually don’t walk away, run—as fast as you can. There is a difference between misattunement (i.e., your partner missing your calls for responsiveness or not knowing how to be responsive) and verbal or physical aggression. When active physical and/or verbal aggression is recurring, your relationship will not blossom, no matter how much time and effort you invest. You see, physical safety is the most basic pre-requisite for a successful intimate relationship. So if your partner struggles to express herself or get her needs met without endangering you (or others), it is a sign that she needs more practice regulating her own emotions independently and is not yet able to be in an intimate relationship. It does not make her a bad person, it simply means she needs to do more self-work to be able to be in a relationship. Any illusion that you will be the one to help her develop those skills is exactly that—an illusion. It is simply not fair for you to live in fear until she develops those skills or to let her continue an intimate relationship when she does not yet have the skills to do so.
Dr. Bukky Kolawole is a NY-based licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in helping lesbian and gay couples cultivate the healthy and fulfilling relationships they deserve. She has offices in SoHo (Manhattan) and Park Slope (Brooklyn) and offers late evening hours to accommodate the needs of professionals. For more info about Dr. Bukky, visit her website at www.drbukkyk.com.