Cut contact! When is it time to end a difficult relationship?

I’m not ashamed to admit that I listen to a couple of podcasts that share Reddit stories; much like the high-quality reality TV I enjoy, they’re an easy and often entertaining way to switch off for a while. If you’re not familiar with these kinds of stories, it’s people asking the internet for relationship advice when something tricky has happened, or asking for opinions on whether they’re in the wrong for something they’ve done. 

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The more I listen, the more I notice a trend towards commenters advising the posters to immediately cut contact with the person or people who have wronged them, labelling the other people (or the posters themselves) as toxic, and going ‘no contact’ being the only viable solution. It’s an easy judgement to make in the context of Reddit – you read about a dramatic situation and a history of the poster being mistreated and yeah, it’s simple right? Cut those people out! So then if the poster provides an update to the story - perhaps they’re giving the person another chance, or wanting to go to therapy with them instead - they are often met with incredulity and condemnation for not being willing to go no-contact. 

Except, in my experience, it’s never that simple, it’s never that easy for someone to release themselves from a relationship that has been important to them, whether it’s romantic, in friendships, or with family members. Often people will want to try anything and everything to make the situation better before they are ready to accept that they can no longer have someone in their life. There can also be a huge stigma around cutting off family members, fearing that other people won’t understand. There may be concerns around the impact on the wider family and similar worries for friendship groups – how will group events be navigated going forward and how will the individual relationships within those groups be impacted? 

I’m a big believer in boundary-setting. I fully support my clients in figuring out where their limits are, and when people try to push those limits I support them in finding ways to hold firm. This can be through things like: 

  • Figuring out what is important to you and paying attention to what you want.
  • Reflecting on where your responsibilities lie and don’t lie (this can be emotionally as well as practically).
  • Noticing the times you’d like to say no, but say yes instead.
  • Learning when and how to say no.
  • Choosing how often and in what way you want to be in touch with a person you find difficult.
  • What kind of contact is ok for you e.g. in person/by phone.

There will almost inevitably be pushback from the recipient of the new boundary. Change is hard, and if someone has, for example, been used to getting their own way and not hearing from you that you don’t like something, they’re not going to appreciate you starting to speak up. The main work of boundary setting is boundary holding, and you may need to reinforce it, and remind people of it again and again...and again! 

Of course, there may be relationships in which you have tried really hard to assert your boundaries but it’s still a struggle. Maybe you feel drained spending time with them, perhaps they put you down or try to manipulate you. Or maybe you just don’t have much in common, you’re very different people, and if they weren’t a long-time friend or family member you wouldn’t choose to spend time with them. You might have already tried really hard to feel valued, appreciated and loved by them, but you are realising that the effort you are putting in is one-sided, and you simply don’t have more to give. This can be incredibly sad to realise and tough to accept. If, in time, you are able to accept it, it can also be freeing. The amount of effort and energy you have been putting into trying to change things can be freed up for you, for your interests and for other relationships.

Apologies to Reddit, but only you can decide whether ending a relationship is the right choice for you. Getting the support of a therapist on issues of difficult relationships, boundary setting, and the incredibly tough choice of whether and how to end relationships can be really helpful to support you in figuring out what is best for you. A good therapist will not judge you, either for staying in the relationship or for cutting someone off, they will be alongside you throughout. 

If you’d like some support on these or other issues, I’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch by clicking the ‘email me’ button below. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Wimborne BH21 & Poole BH16
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Written by Danielle Goshawk, MSc. MNCPS (Acc.) Psychotherapist, Counsellor & Supervisor
Wimborne BH21 & Poole BH16

Danielle Goshawk is an integrative counsellor, psychotherapist and supervisor working in private practice online and in Dorset. She works with adults individually and offers relationship therapy to couples.

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