First of all, consult someone who’s messed it up horribly at least a couple of times. They will offer some mature and very wise counsel, not at all tinged with bitterness and regret. They won’t simply spout generic “good advice” about kindness, understanding and listening; they’ve lived.
They will know that, in certain instances, it’s better just to get out and not think about the other person’s feelings; it’s thinking about their damn, stupid feelings the whole time that’s landed you in this decade-long misery-fest. If this is your case, just pack your stuff and do your thinking later. In the end you will both be glad. (See? Very sophisticated.)
If, however, it’s you that’s the scoundrel – you’re having an affair or have just “gone off” someone nice who seems to love you – try not to be too much of a twit about it. It can be really shameful to be on the wrong side of this one, and shame can push you either to be dishonest or to try to redistribute the blame.
Don’t attempt to convince yourself, and especially not your mutual friends, that the other person isn’t exactly a paragon of partnerhood either. Of course they aren’t, nobody is, but that doesn’t mean you have to highlight their flaws in order to make yourself feel better. Then again, there’s no need to make a massive show of self-flagellation. A touch of stoicism will do just fine. Take them out to dinner, take their feelings seriously, and let them shout at you a bit if they want to.
It’s awful to leave someone who doesn’t want to be left, but it can also be awful to stay with them. If you let them go, you will at least be giving them a chance to find someone else who is actually capable of loving them. And when you hear, 20 years later, that they are living in Brooklyn with their partner and child, you will almost cry with happiness.
(At the same time as wondering, self-indulgently, whether their romantic good fortune has made it possible for them to forgive you at least a little bit. Wow, Anouchka, you really can’t let go of the idea of being a “good person”!)
Come to think of it, kindness, understanding and listening might have been quite a good idea, at least if you’re the scoundrel. There’s nothing more stupid than acting out rather than trying to articulate yourself.
It’s got to be kinder to say you’re unhappy than to sleep with some passer-by (whom you then marry). The problem is that, when you start to talk and listen, you often find you can’t help liking, even loving, the other person – and that makes it very difficult to abandon them.
The one advantage of dumb acting out is that it can at least give the abandonee an opportunity to hate you. If you’re absolutely sure that leaving is essential then why spend loads of time trying to make it possible for them to continue to think well of you? This could even be considered a little vain. Attempting to do something horrible to someone in a polite way is inherently problematic. (Just look at the government.)
While there might be a free-floating cultural ideal that tells us to try to be on good terms with everyone at all times, sometimes this just isn’t possible. Of course there’s no need to be nasty for the sake of it, but neurotically trying to be perfect can be time-consuming and messy. Some breakups take years.
There are people who can, apparently, bring about the ideal disunion, but if everyone expects to do the same they might find themselves having a lot of very long, sad and frustrating conversations when they could have been out enjoying the sunshine. But, then again, sunshine gives you cancer and serious dialogue can make you more humane and insightful.
It’s hard to feel good about ending a long-term relationship, even when it’s ultimately for the best. Not only are you choosing to throw yourself into the void, but you are also chucking someone else in involuntarily. Whether they are an angel, a devil, or even just an ordinary human being, you might feel dreadful about what you’re about to do to them. That’s not a sign that you’re making a bad choice, it’s just a register of the fact that you do still care about them. So that’s nice.
On a more practical note, if you’re married to someone who does properly terrible things, consider divorcing on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour rather than waiting two years and calling it irretrievable breakdown. (But do bear in mind that it’s probably unwise to be too idealistic about divorce courts; #freetiniowens.)
It’s so common for these things to be lost to history; the perp wants to go about their life as usual, find another hostage ASAP, and pretend none of it ever happened. Or if it did, it was just as much your fault as theirs. This sort of whitewashing can leave you with a disconcerting feeling of unreality. Possessing a legal document that acknowledges what actually went on might help.
Having said that, if you’ve stayed in a long-term relationship with someone who’s demonstrably bad news you’ve probably lost your mental coordinates enough to find it difficult to fight for justice or recognition. If so, re-read the first paragraph, pack, and don’t forget to throw cress seeds on their sofa on the way out (or seek other good revenge advice on Mumsnet). It’s more important to be out than to be “right”.
As you can see, this is all very considered and impartial. Sometimes it’s them, sometimes it’s you (but don’t ever actually say: “It’s not you, it’s me”, obvs). And now I think it’s time for me to finally get round to doing that thinking.
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