There was a joke my father would like to tell on occasion “Do you know why divorces are so expensive?” he’d ask? “Because they’re worth it!”
He would know, I guess. He was on his fourth wife by the time he passed away, getting divorced almost like clockwork at seven year intervals. Now, while there were many things about my father that weren’t terribly admirable (he wasn’t so big on ethical non-monogamy, for example, preferring instead to cheat and try to not get caught) but in looking back… well, he was kinda right about that.
Yes, the joke – by its nature – is fairly reductive, but it contains a salient point: there are times when walking away from an untenable situation is the most incredible feeling you can know – whether it’s a person or a situation.
All too often however, the idea of “moving on” is treated as the worst thing ever. Giving up on something (or someone) is made out to be a a tragedy, a weakness and a character flaw… when sometimes it’s the best thing you can do for yourself.
The Ultimate Power
Giving up is often treated as a negative – the phrase itself has connotations of failure and weakness – when in reality, a willingness to walk away from something is actually an expression of strength and control. When we find ourselves in a negative situation, the ability to change it by leaving is the ultimate expression of power. Many of the situations we find ourselves in only control us because we give our consent to them… and then we seem to forget that we have the power to leave them.
Take, for example, the idea of The Friend Zone.
The Friend Zone is treated like a prison sentence – a one-sided situation where women capriciously exile men for the crime of daring to not be the Alpha Male of their dreams after cruelly stringing them along with no hope of parole or chance of appeal. With all of the wailing, gnashing of teeth and rending of clothing that accompanies tales of being stuck in the Friend Zone you would think that men are powerless to change their situation – after all, even the best efforts won’t always end in success. Except they have always had the power to escape… they just had to be willing to walk away. The idea of leaving is dismissed; after all, why would they want to give up on the one they love? And so they choose instead to remain in a situation that is not only making them miserable but is also unfair to the person they supposedly care so much about.
Similarly, many people who have found themselves to be in toxic, even abusive relationships have felt trapped; not because of children or pets, financial issues or physical security (which are very real issues – please don’t take this as a minimization of them) but because they view the idea of “leaving” as an admission of failure. To walk away is to “give up”, to reveal that you are somehow lesser for being unable to endure your situation with stoic resolve… or worse, being unable to make it better.
Giving up and moving on gets framed as a tacit admission of guilt; it’s your fault that things went so badly and now you’re trying to run away from the consequences of your decisions instead of facing them like a grown-up.
Even in dating situations, being willing to walk away is an implicit statement of “I don’t want to play this game”. It isn’t about weakness or failure; it’s about enforcing one’s boundaries and refusing to allow others to try to induce you into lowering them. Some men worry – for example – about manipulative and game-playing women; the idea that women will shit-test men by, say, demanding that he buy her a drink as the price of admission for talking to her or by “challenging” him by being patronizing. They become obsessed with trying to “win” the interaction in a verbal sparring match – rather than friendly teasing and banter – and looking for ways to one-up the shit-tester.
But what is there to be gained from “winning” the interaction? Why let someone get under your skin to that degree and pull you into constantly having to defend yourself verbally rather than just walking away? What value is there to be had in sleeping with someone that obnoxious and repellant rather than walking away and finding someone who doesn’t treat you this way? Giving up and moving on in this case isn’t an admission of defeat, it’s about not playing the game in the first place.
There are people who have toxic friends – friends who will be pleasant to your face but cut you down behind your back or who will taunt you, belittle you and outright insult you… but then tell you that you can’t be mad at them because “it’s just a joke” or “it’s all in good fun”. They minimize your feelings, insult you and then tell you that you are wrong for being upset. These are the people who will turn giving up on them into a referendum on you: that you “can’t take a joke” or that you “need to get a thicker skin”. They will tell you that you’re being weak for not being able to put up with their insults… when the truth is that in moving on, you are saying “this is shit that I will not put up with”.
The Fear of Self-Betrayal
The fear of giving up applies to more than just dating. Another area where making the decision to change is mistaken for weakness or failure is in one’s identity and sense of self.
When you’re working to improve yourself you will come to the crossroads where you have to decide whether or not you are going to choose to change who you are as a person. This is an inevitable point of conflict – we are taught early and often that you should always “be yourself” and that to change who you are is despicable and weak. People should like us for who we are and we should remain steadfastly ourselves no matter what; people who change for others are failures who bend with the whims of fashion and are sad and pathetic people.
There have been several times when people I have been advising have reached this stage and have demanded to know: “Are you saying I should change who I am? Shouldn’t I just be myself?”
My response is very simple: “How is ‘being yourself’ working out for you so far?”
If someone is happy with who they are and satisfied with their lives then no, they shouldn’t consider making a change. But if they’re not… well, sometimes “who you are” is the problem. We make “be yourself no matter what” and “never give up” into a virtue and stick to it even when it holds us back from what we want and what we need. Is it better for an obnoxious, insecure person who views sex as something he is owed to stay resolutely himself, or be willing to admit that perhaps there are aspects of himself that are making his life harder and keeping him from his goal of a satisfying, fulfilling relationship?
This was an issue I struggled with when I was first trying to improve dating life (and by extension myself). I had my identity as a geek and I was not going to change. I was not one of those guys who could go up to strange women and flirt with them and never would be. I liked shit that was unpopular and I didn’t like the stuff everyone else liked because I wasn’t a sheep man. I was proud of who I was. I wasn’t just an individual, I was an iconoclast. I defied the popular and refused to conform because that made me so much better than other people. There was no point in trying to change because not only would it do no good, but admitting that I needed to change would mean admitting that there was a part of me that was actively holding me back. To give up on who I thought I was and be willing to change would be to betray myself.
Now needless to say, I did make the choice to let go of a lot of who I had decided I was… and came to the realization of how much making a virtue of obstinacy was costing me. The sheer amount of awesome music I missed out on because I defined myself in opposition to what people liked was staggering. The people I alienated because I wielded my geek identity like a club, the chances I missed because couldn’t bring myself to give up on the parts of my life that were retarding my growth were… it’s one of the biggest regrets in my life, up there with not getting treatment for depression – and all because I saw giving up as a weakness rather than a potential strength.
We see suggestions to change our identity as indictments of ourselves on a deep and personal level because we grow up believing that our identities are what we’re born with, natural and immutable. When you say that someone needs to change who they are, it’s perceived as an insult because you can’t help who you are, after all. Except we can and frequently do. Our sense of self, of “who we are” changes all the time. You are categorically not the same person now that you were at age 5, or 10 or 15. You just don’t notice those changes because – most of the time – they aren’t conscious decisions as much as they are reactions to experiences.Those changes came so slowly and gradually that, unless you’re a preternaturally mindful individual, you didn’t notice them. Making the conscious decision to change is much harder because you are aware of what you are trying to do, and thus more aware of the process. You find yourself fighting against deeply ingrained habits and beliefs and trying to measure your progress against where you feel you should be versus where you are.
It was just as hard learning how to give up and let go of dreams and goals – whether it involved something as ephemeral as a career or the hope of winning the heart of a particular woman. And yet, it was also just as liberating.
Viewing giving up on goals – even ones that are clearly not working – as an admission of failure leads to devoting time and mental energy on things that cause us pain and get us nowhere. For a long time I had a dream of being a famous illustrator . I pursued it for years even when I knew I struggled at it and other areas came easily for me and gave me greater satisfaction. When I eventually accepted that I could let go of trying to be an artist and focus on other areas it was hard at first – I felt like a failure – but I came to realize that I was freeing myself to expend my time and effort in areas that were much more in tune with my natural gifts and aptitudes. There were women who I wished with all my soul to be with, even though they were never interested in me the way I wanted them to be and my obsession with them was taxing my self-esteem and keeping me from meeting other more compatible people. There were the relationships I desperately held on to because I thought that to give up meant that I was admitting defeat instead of acknowledging that their time had long past and I needed to move on. And when I was finally convinced that moving on was not failure, it was like a massive weight was lifted from my shoulders.
We believe that giving up – letting go of dreams and long-held goals, of our self – is something to be mourned and avoided. But often it’s a matter of understanding the truth.
Never Play an Ace When A Deuce Will Do
The point of being willing to let go isn’t to throw your hands up and walk away at the first sign of trouble. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. When you acknowledge that giving up and moving on is a power move – one of the most powerful options you have -then you also have to acknowledge a certain responsibility inherent in its use. There’s a profound difference between walking away from a relationship that has gone toxic and not being willing to handle the natural trials and tribulations that come with any relationship. It’s one thing to ditch someone who constantly tries to push your boundaries and another when you have simple conflicts of value or intent.
When you’re having an argument about the way you feel your girlfriend treats you, is it better to get to the core of the issue – how you feel versus how she perceives things – or to just pull up stakes and head for greener pastures?
Walking away is best saved for when it’s appropriate rather than pulled out at every available opportunity. When you have issues with the way people treat you, it’s better to stand up for yourself and attempt to address that issue before you pull the eject lever. Many interpersonal issues – whether dealing with friends or loved ones – are not irreparable; they just take work, like every relationship does.
In fact, walking away can be overused and can just as easily become a form of emotional manipulation – give me what I want or I’ll just leave you and find someone else. At this point, you’ve become the person that other people should be giving up on.
The Consequences of Psychic Self-Defense
Keep in mind: being willing to give up isn’t a “get out of responsibilities free” card – it’s not something that you pull out when things have gotten to the point where you don’t feel like dealing with them any more. The point of being willing to walk away is that you are willing to accept the consequences of leaving – giving up a friendship, a relationship – even a relationship of long-standing – because you feel that it’s better than the alternative. The idea of being alone is shameful and that fear – the idea that “it’s better to hold on to this toxic situation rather than not have friends/ a significant other” – is a potent one, and one that is often used to keep people in line. So too is the belief that leaving is tantamount to admitting failure, to telling the world that you were just too weak to make it.
But by being willing to let go, even in the face of of the fear of being Forever Alone, you are proving yourself to be stronger and more powerful than the people who hope to hold you down. It’s tacitly saying that you value yourself and your boundaries more than some nebulous fear. It’s saying that you’re brave enough and strong enough to take your chances, to start over and rebuild from scratch if that’s what it comes down to, rather than stay in that situation any longer. You are willing to ignore the people who will second-guess you and question you and make assumptions because you are secure enough in yourself to not give a shit what they think. By taking that chance, you are explicitly demonstrating that you have the confidence and the courage to do what’s right for you.
You’re not giving up. You’re choosing to leave on your own terms.