When you’re in the middle of relationship drama, whether it’s just gotten started or has been going on for years, one of the hardest things to do is to be rational when things go sideways. The pumping heart in our chest does not always match up with our minds, and the havoc that causes can be hard to reconcile.
What I inevitably end up coaching my girlfriends on when they’re in the romance weeds (and remind myself of this as well) is the idea of an “At-Will” contract.
“At-will employment is a term used in U.S. labor law for contractual relationships in which an employee can be dismissed by an employer for any reason, and without warning, as long as the reason is not illegal.”
It’s an important reminder that we as adults always have 2 options when it comes to relationships: Stay or Leave.
While there are surely inequities in the At-Will employment relationship when it comes to labor laws, let’s flow past those for a minute and talk about the general idea and how it can so beautifully apply to romantic relationships.
Is it potentially an oversimplification of the affairs of the heart that are oftentimes extremely messy and irrational?
Yes. Of course it is.
But is it equally effective at snapping us out of the craziness we are all infected by at some point?
Yup. 100% effective. It’s one of the most efficient ways of thinking that gets your head right when it comes to romance.
How, you ask?
Let’s dive in. You are an adult. That comes with a lot of shit. Responsibilities and stresses and expectations and all sorts of things that kind of suck sometimes. But it also comes with amazing freedom if you’re thinking about it the right way.
See, as adults we get to decide what we want to interact with on a daily basis. It’s called free will. Even when it comes to family, we are in the driver’s seat in how we approach relationships. We may not get to choose our families, but we do get to choose how we engage with them.
While we may have to continue to interact with our relatives who don’t always treat us well, we can decide the terms of those interactions. The length, time, and quality of our relationship with them, or lack thereof.
We CAN skip the party for Aunt Cheryl’s birthday if she’s a bitch and not someone we enjoy spending time with. We DO NOT have to go to Timmy’s graduation if we’re going to be faced with abuse or uncomfortable family conversations.
We have control over our interactions because we have free will.
Are there consequences? Yes of course there are. Free will comes with costs. Those need to be weighed on a case by case basis. Life is messy. But there is a freedom in giving ourselves permission to disengage with people who don’t meet our standards, and things are no different in a romantic relationship.
I think that people get so deep that they forget this: We do not HAVE to be in a romantic relationship.
There are always 2 options, no matter how crazy things get: Stay or Leave. And this can be a really helpful reminder to those that are in the middle of a romance death spiral. Boiling all of your emotions down to their utmost simplicity is illuminating.
Breakups are common and there’s a thing called divorce- even though you’ve pledged “forever” with someone. And while divorce is kind of the ultimate “Leave” moment that I hope my friends and family don’t have to choose in their relationships, it is still an option that many take.
Because a relationship takes 2 parties to create, but only 1 party to dissolve.
Both people have their own needs and wants and are constantly assessing whether they’re being met. No legal contract in the world is an end-all-be-all. If there is breach of contract in some way by one party, the other party has every right to get out.
At-Will is even simpler. Both parties can stay or go at any time. There is no real contract in place except for the implied one: That you both are happy and willing to continue on.
This is at the heart of my argument with my girlfriends as they go through their relationships.
You do NOT have to accept behavior that is shitty because you’re in a romantic relationship. Quite the opposite actually!
It is not true that having your needs continually unmet is the price of admission to be with someone. It is also untrue that you owe it to them to “help them change into a better version of themselves.” I’ve held this same viewpoint in my past relationships. I tell all of my partners this: We will be together as long as both of us want to be. I don’t NEED you to survive. Or to take care of me. Or to live my life. But I WANT you to be by my side as we build this relationship together.
As soon as the WANT part goes away, the relationship, for me, is over.
The same is true for my partners. When one of us no longer wants it, the relationship should end and we move onto greener pastures.
Let’s be clear. My previous relationships have been good ones for the most part. I haven’t dated people that were horrible human beings or that were serial cheaters. I refuse to call it “lucky” that I haven’t experienced shitty relationships or verbal/physical abuse from a partner though. The reason is that I do not, and never will, allow that kind of behavior near me.
NO ONE is desirable enough to make me waver on this point. I’m 100% confident that I deserve much much better from a partner and will not deal with anyone who treats me in a way I don’t like. I would hope the same is true for my partners as well.
Because I am the only one who gets to set the parameters on how I want to be treated, and my potential partner gets to choose whether or not to comply. We can pick and choose partners who will treat us well, and kick them to the curb if they at some point do not.
This is freeing to recognize and say out loud.
We all need to hear this and speak this truth for ourselves when we get to a point where everything is emotionally muddled- many women think that the world is going to end if their relationship does.They feel stuck between bad options and see no way forward.
They’ll lose friends. They’ll lose their safety net. They’ll lose their happiness. And in extreme cases, they’ll lose their families.
And some of those fears may indeed be true. I won’t sugar coat it by saying that getting out of a relationship with another human that you love is easy because breaking up absolutely sucks. And it's sad. And can have a whole multitude of effects on our psyches.
But the key point to never lose sight of, is the fact that you absolutely can do it if you want to. And so can the other person. Each of us must weigh the potential outcomes of our actions with as much rational thought as we can if we’re going to do relationships right.
Where at-will relationship ending goes poorly is when we introduce too much hope, and not enough brutal honesty with ourselves.
Hoping for an outcome that is just not realistically going to happen can be debilitating. And we all agree it’s irrational behavior. Hope is not a winning strategy. Your partner has shown you, already, where they’re at in your relationship- if you’re paying attention. Their actions, their words, their whole aura tells you what you need to know.
Interpreting the signs they give off is not hard. You know what 100% of their effort looks like and conversely, what 20% of their effort looks like. You have a baseline of their acceptable behavior to compare against their other actions- lackadaisical or not.
I do believe that as women, we can also feel it when our partners are not “in it to win it”. Call it a sixth sense, a gut feeling or whatever- But we KNOW when the person we are with isn’t giving it everything they should, and all that we deserve.
And yet, so many women stumble over hope here. I’ve been guilty of it too!
Hoping that we’re wrong. Hoping that change is possible. Hoping that we’re misreading the signs or being “dramatic” and over-thinking it. We get advice from people to not “jump to conclusions” and to be “open-minded” and sure about what’s going on with our partner.
But I ask you this. How many times have you ACTUALLY been wrong in the end? How many times have you looked back and said to yourself “I totally saw that coming”?
I’m betting it’s a lot.
How many times have you been truly blindsided by the end of a relationship?
I’m betting it’s... not a lot. (Unless you’re with a fantastic narcissist and I don’t have the time to deal with that issue right now.)
So we come back to at-will.
Because even if you’re floundering in self-doubt, clarity ensues when you remember that no matter what is going on, you can decide to leave it behind.
Let’s be clear. I’m not condoning quitters. If your relationship is worth fighting for, then fight like absolute hell to keep it alive. This would be the instance where you actively choose to “Stay.” And staying with someone requires work, and lots of it. It’s also messy and sometimes it’s the best decision you’ve ever made.
Communicate with your partner. Be clear on how you’re feeling and how your needs aren’t being met. Show them that you care enough to engage in whatever way you both agree will work for a resolution. Get some damn counseling if you need a third-party to help you mediate and end up in a better place.
But please, please do NOT ever lose sight of the fact that you can go at any time- and so can they.
Use this at-will relationship truth to free yourself from the burden of needing to stay with someone. Use it to remember that you should want to stay with someone. And visa versa. And get the hell out of relationships that don’t deliver what you deserve. Because while I personally have not found my forever, I can tell you that I know eventually I will.
I’m at a place where I don’t need someone, but I’m open to wanting someone who wants me right back. I carry the belief that there is someone out there for me. More likely, there are multiple “someones” out there for me.
Our romantic relationships are all building blocks on our journey to enlightenment. Each one teaches us more and more about ourselves, and enables us to come to a point where we’ve reached our ultimate goal: