How bad does a relationship have to be for you to leave it?

Have you ever looked at your relationships and wondered how much unpleasantness you’re willing to withstand to stay in a marriage or friendship?

Everyone has a different internal gauge for how much discomfort or misery they are willing to endure. This internal tipping point is based on their childhood and their own emotional constitution. While that might make it sound immutable, it is more flexible than you think.

For most people, it feels incredibly disturbing, even scary, to go out of their comfort zone. By comfort zone I mean this internal demarcation between the safety you feel in a disturbing or unpleasant relationship and the insecurity you feel relinquishing it, or even thinking about a change.

To an outsider, this may look like a fairly easy decision. But it almost never is. Why would you stand for someone treating you poorly? Because you’re still getting something valuable the rest of the time. In addition, our society does not equate emotional abuse with physical abuse. If your mate punched you every time they saw you and you ended up in the hospital with a broken nose, nobody would suggest you keep going back. On the other hand, if they belittled you every day and you divorced, many folks would wonder if you lost your marbles.


Emotional bonds can feel as if they are epoxied to our very essence. In addition, the strongest bond, especially if it’s a trauma bond, comes from intermittent reinforcement. In behavioral psychology, intermittent reinforcement is when you get what you want some of the time but you can’t predict when that will be. Just like gambling, you get enough of what you want to keep you in the game. Unlike gambling, in a relationship there is the nascent hope that if you are kind or patient enough you will somehow get more of what you want. Conversely, there are some people who think if they yell, scream, or cry enough the other person will be motivated to change.

If you recognize yourself in a trauma bond with your partner, but you aren’t ready to leave, you can use creative separation strategies. The most important of these is setting good boundaries. When your friend or mate behaves in a way that you find disturbing you calmly separate. You might say something like, “I don’t like it when you talk to me that way, so I’m going to go for a walk.” If you know your partner is particularly challenging when under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, it’s a good time to get out of their orbit. This may not always be easy or even feasible, but taking responsibility for yourself and physically separating from someone’s hurtful or disturbing behavior can be very empowering.

Trauma bonds and poor boundaries are almost always the result of childhood experiences. Being an adult child of an alcoholic, growing up with a raging or unpredictable parent, having a parent who over-protects and/or neglects you, all of these can easily create a tendency to be codependent. One of the hallmarks of codependence is difficulty being assertive and setting healthy limits on what you are willing to endure. That intermittent reinforcement schedule keeps you waiting for the next good thing.

If you do decide to set better boundaries, or even leave a relationship, expect that you will feel extremely threatened, anxious, and unhinged. Almost any deep internal change creates cognitive dissonance. Part of you feels cellularly attached and part of you wants the freedom that comes from taking better care of yourself. This is why the Holy Grail of psychotherapy is helping you feel safe inside yourself. But nobody feels safe inside themselves 100% of the time. You are a work in progress. You’re moving towards feeling safer. Be patient.

Anyone who has been through a divorce, especially after a long marriage, knows how incredibly difficult it is to make a major life change. It’s a gamble on your own potential for growth. And when you do it without the emotional safety net of having another person ready to substitute for your ex, you have to face yourself. As difficult as this is, because it’s rare to feel secure when your life is thrown into a blender, it’s the path to creating that internal sense of safety you thought you would get from your partner. The truth is, there is no real safety in this life.


While there is no real safety, there are two ways to feel safer. Living with a willing suspension of disbelief, where you don’t focus on all the worst possibilities, and creating a refuge in yourself. Most of this website is devoted to the latter.

It takes a lot of courage to live even one day. Whether your internal world feels chaotic or you see chaos in the world at large, neither inspires a sense of security. Yet, if you live in this moment, “the thinnest slice of now” as my friend says, you can get through anything that doesn’t kill you.

Most choices in life are options along a continuum, rather than extremes. In other words, it may not be a question of staying or leaving a relationship, it may be staying and changing the relationship from within. Changing the relationship means changing how you respond, not changing the other person. That’s their job, and they may never do it.

Everyone has different tolerance levels for what feels acceptable or unacceptable, and those invisible lines can change throughout a lifetime. What you might have cheerfully accepted in your 20s or 30s may be untenable in your 40s or 50s. Staying curious, open, and committed to your own personal development, gives you the latitude to make different choices, even if those don’t align with who you think you are, or are supposed to be. Usually, who you think you are is based on who you think you were. Thankfully, who you think you’re supposed to be can become less relevant with each passing year as you naturally evolve.

It’s very difficult to accommodate this shifting inner demarcation of what you’re willing to accept or not accept. The most crucial thing you can do as you tolerate the fallout from a major life change is to lavish yourself with kindness, patience, and understanding. These precious gifts to yourself can be incredibly elusive if you grew up in a household where they were in short supply, or spent years in a challenging relationship. There is only one way to become more loving toward yourself: practice, practice, practice. It can take years to create an inner sanctuary. Along the way, you will notice how much quieter your inner critic and negative voices become. Patience and curiosity are your best friends along this path to self-love and unconditional self-acceptance.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

Posted in

Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.