June 8, 2021

Wanting to Leave is Not Enough.


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There’s this beautiful, powerful, heartbreaking piece of writing by Cheryl Strayed…

…and it’s been bugging me ever since I first read it:

“Go, even though you love him.
Go, even though he is kind and faithful and dear to you.
Go, even though he’s your best friend and you’re his.
Go, even though you can’t imagine your life without him.
Go, even though he adores you and your leaving will devastate him.
Go, even though your friends will be disappointed or surprised or pissed off or all three.
Go, even though you once said you would stay.
Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone.
Go, even though you’re sure no one will ever love you as well as he does.
Go, even though there is nowhere to go.
Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough.” 

We hear this message echoed in many ways and many memes across the internet: leave him.

As far as I can see, it’s mostly directed at women in relationships with men.

Of course, Cheryl Strayed was in her own particular situation when she chose to leave. Even though leaving scared her, she listened to the deep, inner voice that guided her out of rock bottom. Not only did she change the course of her life but she’s done some pretty damn amazing things with it since. And it all started with finding the courage to just…Go. 

She also isn’t the only woman to begin the first chapter of her authentic story by leaving a relationship. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.

But, is wanting to leave enough? Well, it depends.

In our quest to shake off the burden of the “old fairytale,” we seem to have constructed a new, alternate fairytale for independent women.

In this new version, not only does the princess leave the prince in order to find her destiny and live happily ever after, but she is compelled to do so if she is to win the day at all. Therefore, any feeling of wanting to leave must be an inner knowing, guiding her toward the ultimate truth, right?

Not quite.

The message that feelings outweigh all other factors is deeply flawed. It disregards the nuance of the human psyche and fails to take the complex dynamics of relationships into account.

It encourages women who find themselves in a place of questioning to look no further than that feeling of discomfort. To trust what it seems to be telling us. To buy its story that the answers lie elsewhere, outside of ourselves. That going somewhere else, whether without him or perhaps even with someone else will bring us closer to resolution. And that’s where we go wrong. 

I wrestled with this message in many different forms (as I said, it’s everywhere), and my own feelings about my own relationship, for much of the past two years.

If you’ve been in a relationship as long as I have, there’s bound to be more than one time when you’ve wanted to leave. When you’ve wondered what life would be like without this person, or even with another—I mean seriously thought about it.

And I’m talking about a fairly healthy relationship here: we talk, we laugh, we respect each other, we have fun, and good sex. Even then, I’ve wanted to leave. Why? Because I’m human and (going on) 20 years is time enough to have gone through plenty, changed plenty, and fallen out of love with one another, plenty.

This is the reality of a long-term relationship: you are not going to be “in love” forever.

As our therapist explained, it usually takes a year or two to move out of that honeymoon phase. But being in love and choosing love are two different things. It’s important to be open about this, and most of us are not.

What Cheryl Strayed’s writing does is help free us from the shame of having those thoughts and feelings in the first place. However, it doesn’t help us understand the root of these thoughts and feelings, which is different for each one of us, because most intimate relationships are based on psychological projection, at least to begin with.

…what we fall in love with is some aspect of ourselves as reflected back to us from the other.” ~ James Hollis

So, how do we know what is underneath this feeling of wanting to leave unless we are brave enough to look our own reflection in the eye? If we are, we may find that the answers are not so clean-cut.

Is our wanting to leave rooted in the relationship, or in us? Answering this question requires more of us than any internet meme or shareable quote, and we don’t like it.

It’s much more convenient to just…Go, because you want to.

Yes, we are and should be free to choose. Sure, wanting to leave might be enough, for some. Only we can decide—hopefully from a place of self-awareness, rather than fantasy and confusion.

Strong women leave, and strong women stay. No one should urge us to do either.

This is another part of the problem with this whole “leave him” trend.

As women, we tend to be more naturally community-oriented, conversational, and collaborative than men, so it’s only natural that we seek advice and input from other women we trust when faced with difficult thoughts, feelings, and situations.

Add the rabbit hole of quick-fix relationship advice we now have at the tips of our fingers, and we risk losing sight of our own wisdom—the deep inner wisdom that lies beneath the drama and the projections and the social trends.

“Of the two witnesses, hold the principal one.” ~ Atisha

“According to this (20th Lojong) slogan, if we want feedback as to how we are doing, we must rely on our own judgment. But it is unsettling to realize that no one else really knows what is going on with us. So we look around for confirmation. We look to others for feedback and to find clues as to how we are doing from others. Instead of looking directly at our own experience, we try to find it in what is reflected back to us from outside. But that reflection is not all that trustworthy.” ~ Judy Lief

This is to say, no one can truly know or guide us on our path but us.

Just because it was right for one person to leave a particular relationship at that particular time in her or his particular path, does not mean it is right for you, or for me, or anyone.

Other people’s stories and perspectives can be helpful. Anything that wakes us up to our own confusion can be helpful. But social media, especially, has the tendency to turn words—whether from heroines like Cheryl Strayed or just the latest trending relationship blog—into some kind of catch-all, quasi-religious text for strong, independent women. This reduces everything to an either-or duality and does the complex truth of long-term relationships an injustice.

It gives us an easy way out when, sometimes, staying and having the hard conversations and confronting the difficult feelings, together, might actually be the path of more growth, of more self-love…ultimately.

We live in a culture where we’re told to walk away from anyone who makes us feel uncomfortable because we sure as hell don’t like to feel anything except happiness. And what a shame. Because those tricky places are often the juiciest, the richest to be in. If only we can be brave enough to stay there a while and ask ourselves: where are these feelings really coming from?

If we can withdraw our projections and turn our gaze inward long enough, we might see that the person we are in a relationship with is not the enemy of our freedom, our full expansion, after all.

More likely, they are just the scapegoat for what we are unwilling to face in ourselves.

Once we open our eyes, we might see that relationship is neither a roadblock nor an obstacle on the path to enlightenment—relationship is the path.

And the path is a circle, leading back to ourselves.


“When one has let go of that great hidden agenda that drives humanity and its varied histories, then one can begin to encounter the immensity of one’s own soul. If we are courageous enough to say, ‘Not this person, nor any other, can ultimately give me what I want; only I can,’ then we are free to celebrate a relationship for what it can give.” ~ James Hollis, The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other 

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