Deciding to end a relationship is rarely a clear-cut call. You may feel torn between stepping back from something you know isn’t healthy for you and holding onto what you still love about the relationship. Maybe you question if you’re giving up too quickly or if there may be a way to repair the relationship. It’s hard to figure out whether you should end a relationship when you can’t even detangle your own feelings about the relationship. So how do you know when it’s really time to end your relationship?
To help you discern if you should end your relationship with someone, licensed counselor and pastor Lynn Min poses a set of questions about you, your relationship, and God’s leading in your life. She also shares how she has processed these questions in her own life, particularly through her divorce.
Lynn’s advice is not only for people discerning whether to end romantic relationships. It could also be helpful as you consider ending a friendship, leaving a job that’s not working, distancing yourself from a family member, or leaving your church.
For guidance on how to end a relationship well and move forward after it’s over, check out the second part of my conversation with Lynn Min.
Questions to ask yourself as you discern whether to end a relationship
Note: the process for deciding to end a relationship Lynn outlines is informed by both faith and the field of mental health. If you are not a spiritual person, some of these questions may not be things you usually consider. However, we encourage you to keep an open mind.
Who does God say you are? Who do you say you are?
As you discern whether to end a relationship, make sure you check in with two other relationships: your relationship with yourself and your relationship with God.
“Hunker down and ask yourself, ‘God, who do you say I am? And, honestly, who do I say I am?’” Lynn says. “That’s the question Jesus asked Peter, the question that Jesus ends up building his church on.
“What does God believe is possible for me in relationships? What was God’s purpose of this relationship for me? What kind of relationship does God feel I deserve? These are important questions for determining your inmost beliefs. And as human beings, we are wired to act from a subconscious place, not always the conscious.”
Just as important is assessing the underlying beliefs you hold for yourself:
“What kind of relationship is possible for me? Do I believe I have the emotional/psychological ability to have good, healthy, mutually benefiting relationships? More importantly, do I believe that I deserve them?”
Your own beliefs about relationships become the basis for the relationships you build.
“When I tell God, ‘God, you need to build your church,’” Lynn observes, “God always seems to [bring] it back to me: ‘Lynn, you need to know the truth of who you are; and if you don’t know it, you need to do the work of learning it and living it, because I will not build my church on anything else.’”
Everything else should follow from your relationship with yourself and with God. And Lynn sees these two relationships as deeply intertwined, threaded together by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
“My relationship with God and with myself are like two sides of the same coin. How does God ultimately speak to us, if not through us and within us? Understanding the inklings of our soul is how we become fluent in communication with the Holy Spirit.
“So, how am I doing with the Holy Spirit’s voice within me?” says Lynn. “Do I trust the nudges and convictions I feel? Do I trust that God speaks through my intuition and my deepest desires? Do I validate my own perceptions of truth, even (especially) ones that transcend logic? What inside me is getting in the way of that? Ultimately, if any of my inner parts (fear or lack of faith, etc.) are getting in the way of me listening to God, I need to choose first the kingdom of God, and that requires me to work my discernment muscle.”
How are you listening to God’s voice in your life?
You can’t ground yourself in who God says you are called to be if you aren’t listening to God and for God in your life. But how do you hear God’s voice? What are the boxes you’ve (unintentionally) limited “God’s voice” to?
Even if you turn to Scripture to hear God speak to you, you rely on the Holy Spirit to help you apply the message to your life. It’s through the lens of you that you understand, assign meaning to, and follow through on the guidance of God’s voice. In other words, the self—in its mindset, expectations, and awareness of itself—is the lens through which you interpret God’s voice. This is why it’s so important to understand and know yourself.
“How does God speak? Sometimes it’s through situations. Sometimes it’s through other people. Sometimes it’s through life,” says Lynn. “Most of the time, it’s not a clear, audible voice. But however God speaks, we recognize it through an internal awareness or inkling we label as ‘conviction’ or ‘peace.’ These are the emotional markers that help us understand that God is happening within you.
“It’s not a head-knowing; it’s a heart-knowing. This is why, as a counselor, I can’t separate my work with emotions from the work of getting people closer to God.”
Slow yourself down and press pause to hear what God is saying about your relationships. When you pause, pay attention to the feelings that surface up. Sit with them. Wrestle with them.
“For example, are you working on this relationship because you genuinely feel that it is bringing you the necessary challenges that will ultimately hone you both towards the truest versions of yourselves?” Lynn asks, “Or are you holding on because of some kind of fear? Fear that there might be nothing better for you out there? Fear that you don’t deserve anything better, or will not be able to find something healthier? Or maybe, fear that you won’t meet societal expectations?”
Honestly ask yourself if you’re acting from a place of love or one of fear. Lynn says that this will help you discern the voice of God, because God only calls us into perfect love, which casts out all fear. Be open to different ways that God could speak to you, yet be mindful not to mistake God’s leading with your own instincts and defenses.
No matter which choice you make, stay grounded in the truth that there are no mistakes made in God. If anything, we believe in a God that makes all things work together for our good. As long as you’re making the choice after having done the work of sitting with your feelings and discerning the guidance of God, go in full faith that God is working with you, for you.
Is this relationship bearing the fruit of the Holy Spirit?
In Luke 6:43-44, Jesus teaches, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.”
As you think about whether to end a relationship, consider the fruit of that relationship.
“We are taught to know a tree by its fruits, right?” says Lynn. “Peace, love, patience, and all of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Ask yourself: Are these fruits evident in my relationship?”
Are there signs of abuse in this relationship?
In theory, abuse might seem like an obvious problem. But abuse is not always easy to recognize. Abuse exists on several different spectrums, and it can be very nuanced. Abuse is also not just physical. Other forms of abuse include emotional abuse, gaslighting, and spiritual abuse.
“With all this in mind, be kind and compassionate to yourself as you discern whether to leave or stay,” Lynn says. “Be gentle as a dove with yourself and sly as a viper as you plan your next steps.”
Abusive relationships may have meaningful and even beautiful elements as well. The stories we tell ourselves about people we love can amplify the beauty and airbrush out the ugliness as persuasively as the filtered, fine-tuned influencer images that populate Instagram feeds.
“Love and abuse are not always neatly separated on opposite ends of the spectrum,” Lynn explains. “They often come together. This is why a victim often stays or goes back to the abuser.”
I asked Lynn if there were signs of abuse in a relationship to look for across different types of relationships:
“If you don’t feel safe—with your thoughts, with feelings, with expressing yourself—that’s a red flag. Ask why don’t I feel safe? It’s not just he’s going to hit me. It could be she might not like me. Does this relationship cause you to contract and make yourself smaller, [as if] coiled in a defensive fetal position? Or do you feel free to openly show up and expand—arms open, chest out? Are you free to express your thoughts and emotions? Emotions are really important to how you understand God, so I would check on that.”
Some relationships you haven’t thought of as abusive might not feel entirely safe to you emotionally. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to end all of those relationships, according to Lynn. But you should be asking yourself why you’re tolerating this in your relationships and if it is affecting your ability to experience everything God has for you.
“If you’re not receiving or experiencing the fruits of the Holy Spirit in this relationship, you need to ask, ‘Why am I tolerating this?’ If you really believe the words of Jesus Christ, if you believe you are a child of God, you don’t have to tolerate any of that,” says Lynn.
As Lynn says, not everything in life is what we want, “but it is absolutely what we tolerate.” Dig deeper into what you tolerate in relationships and why. It will tell you a lot about the underlying beliefs you hold. Make sure those beliefs line up with God’s truth.
If you think someone you know is an abusive relationship, you may want to help them get out. But first, Lynn says they need to realize the relationship is abusive themselves.
“You can’t take a person out of an abusive cycle until they’re ready to move,” she says. “Wait for them to come to the truth on their own time. Until then, lovingly remind them, ‘you are called to be the fullest version of you. You deserve to be loved in a God-honoring way. God has his fingerprints all over you. You don’t have to settle for anything less.’”
She reminds us that holding space for people to have the final say on their relationships is the most dignifying and empowering way to help them.
Can you thrive in this relationship?
Your relationships shouldn’t hold you back from being everything God has called you to be. Healthy relationships will actually help you to thrive.
“If you’re not tapping into all the glorious things God has for you, reflect on that. Why not? Because it’s on earth as it is in heaven, not just when I get to heaven,” says Lynn. “I think the fullness of what we’re called to in life is not just to survive, but to thrive.”
To “thrive” in the spiritual sense is not the promise of an easy life, or of financial prosperity, as televangelists might promise. It’s about being able to be who God made you to be, assured of God’s love and grace for you. And it’s about experiencing this within relationships.
“When you feel like [you’re] not thriving, it’s not just because [you’re] in an unhealthy or abusive relationship,” says Lynn. Sometimes the problem might not be the relationship itself. “[Ask] why specifically am I not thriving? What do I believe about myself and thriving? What doubts am I carrying? God always has good things in store for us, but we will only be able to receive that which matches our inmost beliefs.”
If we don’t have faith that God’s goodness is available to us or is something we deserve, Lynn says we may even sabotage the good that comes our way.
If you feel you’re in an abusive relationship, consider this: “Is the fact that I’m in this relationship stopping me from living out my calling? If I can boldly say, nope, not that I know of, or I’m going to make sure it doesn’t, then it might be okay to stay in the relationship. If not, I need to pause, dig deeper, and reflect on why I’m tolerating this. Is it aligned to what Jesus has for me?”
It may take time for you to be ready to recognize that you’re not thriving in a relationship. Even denial has its place in the process of discernment and grief. The more intimate and lasting the relationship has been, the harder this may be. Lynn experienced this when she started to contemplate the end of her marriage.
“When I was in the middle of trying to figure out Is this a divorce? I was so desperate that I wasn’t ready to accept the truth,” Lynn says. “I wasn’t ready to admit, ‘I’m dying.’ But that’s exactly what it was. I was dying in that relationship. I just wasn’t ready for it because I was afraid of what might come next. More than being dead inside in my marriage, I feared being too alive as a divorced person. I needed to grieve, not my marriage persay, but the fact that I was going to be no longer ‘married.’
“It came little by little, but one day, I realized that my marriage wasn’t bearing any of the fruits that I knew God wanted for me. And it came to a point where the divorce felt like a more honest way to honor my relationship with myself and God.”
Are you ready to move forward without this relationship?
“Telling people to ‘get out’ of dysfunctional relationships and expecting them to follow through promptly could leave them feeling quite shameful. They might think, ‘Maybe other people can, but not me,’” says Lynn.
Again, Lynn emphasizes cultivating awareness of the inner beliefs you hold. What do you believe that you deserve? What do you believe is possible?
“Before my divorce, I had to really think through What does it mean for me to be a single mom of three? How will I work? Who will watch my kids?” Lynn recalls. “I needed a vision of me being able to do this before I could even entertain the idea of divorce.”
Map out a path for yourself to live without this relationship. Imagine what your life might be like and start to prepare yourself for it. Lynn reminds us that the next steps we take toward our future begin in our own minds. The unknown is a scary place that we avoid by default. So we need a vision before we can move.
Making a plan and envisioning a better, healthier relationship may even help you muster up the courage to end a relationship because you’ll be more confident in your ability to thrive without it. In fact, once you start envisioning your path forward, you have already begun writing your next chapter with God.
If you reflect on these questions and determine that it is time to end your relationship, your journey isn’t quite over. Lynn provides guidance and insights on how to say goodbye to your relationship well in part two of our conversation.