Tears of grief caress my cheeks. I look at her. We’ve experienced a lot these past few months. The anger, the despair, the arguments and judgment, the blame and messiness…why can’t we get along? The tension is unbearable. I know today might be the last time I see her in this way, as more-than-friends.

I hold her hand and our eyes meet and my heart flutters and more tears arrive. “I’m sorry,” I say, “for everything.” I mean it. There are no specifics. No analysis. No regret. Just a humble sorry for the pain I’ve caused. “And I forgive you, for everything.” I mean this, too, my words a symbol of truth, a yearning for truce.

Fast forward a few hours, and we’re enjoying each other’s company, intimate, light, like the old-days that weren’t so long ago. Since then, things have felt lighter; the relationship has shifted as the clouds move and the bright blue sky, our love for each other, reveals itself.

It’s always difficult to know when a relationship is truly over, to distinguish clouds from sky. I’ve been through enough break-ups to know sometimes, we hold on too long and sometimes, we let go too soon. But how do we know? How do we know if it’s the end, or if the relationship needs more work?

It starts with authenticity

The quest for truth begins with ourselves. If we’re disconnected from our feelings, intuition, heart’s desire, it’s impossible to enter any relationship with clarity. Meeting honestly and openly with your partner is necessary in a healthy relationship. But that’s not the place to process our deeper desires; it’s a place to present what we’ve discovered alone.

In the example above, I knew the tension was a sign that things were not going well, that there was work to be done. There were times where I questioned whether to keep going. I doubted our compatibility. When it became clear we were reaching an ultimatum, I decided to make time to discover the truth.

I created a mini-retreat, to reconnect with myself and gain clarity. We’d given each other space, to allow pieces to fall into place without adding new memories into the mix. I journaled, I meditated, and I realized I love her, and I wanted to make things work. 

I realized most “tension” was from fear, from ego. Yes, there were boundaries to be set and agreements to be made. But I received the signal from my heart to continue. I realized I was holding on for a reason. It wasn’t time to let go.

Perfectionism and fearing tension

I’m a completely different person compared to five years ago. Now I’m able to acknowledge tension, fallouts, arguments, or not getting along aren’t necessarily indicators of a “failing” relationship.

This wasn’t the case in the past. High expectations, difficulty processing emotions, and trouble communicating always used to equate tension to a direct threat, impending doom.

Expectations in themselves can be the death of a relationship. They obscure the truth, convincing either or both people the relationship is over, when in reality there’s work to reduce pressure and align with reality. In one relationship I broke things off due to unrealistic expectations, only to wake up one morning, six months later, full of regret and a heavy heart.

If you’re experiencing a challenging time in your relationship, I recommend sitting down, heart-to-heart, and asking each other: what expectations do we have? It’s amazing how unspoken and even unconscious expectations influence the direct reality of all relationships. The key is understanding which expectations are healthy needs, and which are unrealistic.

In my current relationship, I acknowledged both. I let go of unrealistic expectations around what my partner could provide for me and re-directed my intention towards self-work. Then, I clarified my core needs and values, decided which were non-negotiable, and took this insight into our conversation.

Beginner’s mind and hitting the reset button

I said I was sorry and I offered forgiveness to clear energetic tension and to let go of past and future. “We need to bring beginner’s mind to this relationship,” I said, acknowledging the need for Shoshin, the Zen approach to spiritual practice. Shoshin is letting go of all expectations, all preconceptions, remaining open and curious to the present.

I’d had the realization I was holding on to our past, the bad and the good. I realized I was holding onto the future, the fears and fantasies, the mini-distractions from the present. This in itself contributed to energetic tension. Letting go spiritually eases the mind and body, too.

Letting go needed to happen because our “story” was intoxicating. Letting go of the good didn’t mean pretending it didn’t happen; it meant seeing it for what it was, to stop giving it power over the present. Believing we were “destined to be together” contributed to an idealistic view, ironically pulling us apart. 

Memories of conflict and wrongdoing created defensiveness, resentment, blame.

When considering the future of your relationship, I encourage you to bring beginner’s mind. Meet in that moment and attempt to let go of past or future moulding the truth of your reality. Avoid staying together because of shared memories and avoid breaking up because of fixation on past events or fantasies about how things should be.

What is work, anyway?

All worthwhile relationships deserve at least some effort to work things out. It’s a balancing act; there’s no need to carry on attempting to fix the unfixable, just as much as there’s no need to give up at the first hurdle. At the same time, it’s crucial both partners are on the same page. If one person is doing all the work, this is an indication of an imbalance.

What is work? Putting my coaching hat on, it’s the desire to take time to reflect, learn, grow — individually and collectively. It’s the willingness to be honest and open about shadow elements (such as blame and jealousy), to take full responsibility for our emotions and express needs and healthy expectations.

For me this included lots of meditation, journalling, coaching, and vulnerable expressions with my partner. At the same time my partner was following a similar process and I was seeking to understand what she was going through and what triggers caused tension in her and why.

Some couples may need to dedicate more time for intimacy, or give each other space, or focus on cultivating hobbies outside of the relationship. Work comes in all forms. What matters is the motivation of love and compassion and a willingness to create harmony and ease.

What if it’s over?

That doesn’t prevent the reality that most relationships don’t last a lifetime. Life’s too short to throw away what’s meaningful or to hold onto a relationship that is no longer aligned.

This is where truth returns even when it hurts. Deep down, only you know if it really is over. When it is, the best option is to end things rather than prolong or elongate a relationship that has reached its natural twilight.

Ultimately, love isn’t just a feeling. Love is action. Love is commitment. Love is discipline and determination and effort. Feeling love alone isn’t enough. But if the feeling is there, and love remains, and your heart yearns for your beloved, then take action, be bold, be courageous, and do what has to be done.

Love takes work. But it’s so, so worth it.

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