If You Love Something, Set It Free: How To Know When To Let Go

Medically reviewed by Arianna Williams, LPC, CCTP
Updated January 27, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

"If you love someone, set them free. If they come back to you, it was meant to be." –Unknown 

Content Warning: Please be advised that the following article discusses topics related to grief, loss, trauma, abuse, and other potentially triggering topics. Read with discretion. 

You may have heard the quote about setting someone free if you love them. Although it may not be applicable in every relationship, deciding when to let go of a connection can be essential in maintaining healthy dynamics in your life. Studies show that healthy relationships can improve mental health and mood overall. 

When a relationship feels unhealthy or has become challenging, you might decide to end your connection or work through the difficulties. People may not end relationships only because they love someone. The quote could be instead discussing the idea that loving someone might not be enough to make a relationship healthy for both individuals. In some cases, you might love someone and still choose to let them go. 

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What Does It Mean To "Let Someone Go" 

Letting someone go may refer to ending a relationship, setting a boundary, or recovering from a loss, such as a breakup or death. It often involves the concept of acceptance, which is a knowingness or self-agreement that a situation has occurred or is occurring.

For example, to let someone go, you may first accept that you've decided to end the relationship. 

Letting someone go might be done in a romantic, platonic, or familial sense. You could end a relationship with anyone in your life, which may feel challenging. Accepting that the loss is happening or that you've made a decision could feel confusing, but it is often necessary to move forward fully.

When "letting someone go," you might also do the following: 

  • Cut off contact

  • End the relationship indefinitely 

  • Get rid of items from the relationship 

  • End other relationships connected to them, such as connections with their family

  • Attend therapy to discuss your emotions

  • Process your feelings healthily 

  • Ignore attempts to reconnect until you've made a decision 

  • Set boundaries 

Ending a relationship solely because you want someone to feel remorse or to come back to you might not be a healthy action. A cycle of breaking up and making up can be typical in unhealthy relationships. Instead of breaking up to find out if someone cares about you, you might consider couples or family therapy or a long in-depth conversation about feelings. 

Will They Come Back To Me? 

Although the above quote mentions that an individual might return if they were meant to be, this might not apply to all situations. In the case of moving away for college and leaving a long-term healthy partner due to life circumstances, you might find that you reconnect in the future, which could be an example of a "right place, wrong time" situation. However, if you leave a partner who was unhealthy or unkind to you and they return to apologize or attempt to achieve forgiveness, it may not be a healthy situation. 

Regardless of whether someone comes back to you, it may be beneficial to remember you have free will and personal choice in the situation. The person who returns or doesn't return also has a right to their boundaries. If either of you feels the situation is unhealthy, it might be. A quote may not fully estimate the intricacies of relationships.

Talking to a counselor or someone you trust could help you determine whether reconnecting is healthy.

Reasons Why It Might Be Time To Let Go

There are several reasons why someone might let go of a relationship or connection with another person, including the following.  

The Relationship Has Become Unhealthy 

Relationships may become unhealthy for various reasons. Not all unhealthy relationships are necessarily abusive. However, abuse can be a reason for letting go of a connection. Examples of unhealthy and abusive behaviors include the following: 

  • Emotional manipulation 

  • Unkindness

  • Infidelity

  • Physical abuse

  • Guilt-tripping 

  • Gaslighting 

  • A lack of empathy 

  • A lack of communication

  • Differing goals, morals, or values

  • Isolation 

  • Sexual harassment, assault, or abuse

  • Dishonesty

  • A lack of trust 

  • A lack of intimacy 

  • Yelling or raising one's voice 

  • Unhealthy expressions of anger, such as slamming doors

  • A lack of fairness in household chores or finances 

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat

You Are No Longer In Love

In the case of a romantic relationship, individuals might decide to break up if one or both no longer feels in love. Continuing a relationship without love or connection could be painful or challenging. Often, people choose to break up to avoid future pains. In the future, these feelings could change, or they may not. 

You Lost The Person To A Breakup Or Outside Circumstance 

At times, letting go of someone may be forced upon you, as you might have experienced a breakup or lost them due to death, illness, or an unexpected circumstance, like moving long-distance. Acceptance may be a healthy way to move forward if you've recently lost someone. It is also the final stage of grief. If you struggle to let go after a loss, consider speaking to a grief or relationship therapist. 

You Want To Focus On Yourself

If you want to focus on yourself or feel suffocated or stressed by the fact that you're in a relationship, you might decide to end the connection to spend more time independently and learn more about yourself before you commit to someone. Although this can be a healthy choice, it may feel difficult if you still love the person or had hopes and goals with them. 

You Aren't Sure If The Relationship Is Right For You 

At times, you may feel unsure if a relationship is right for you or healthy. In these cases, you might decide to let go to take some time alone to discover what you want. Although the person might not be available anymore when you make a decision, it could offer some clarity overall, and you may find more decisiveness in future relationships.

Love May Not Be "Enough" 

Sometimes, people who love each other decide to end a relationship despite the love they feel. They may feel that love is not enough to keep the relationship healthy. Despite many efforts, they might experience conflict, challenges, and stress. In these cases, it could be a healthy choice to let go. However, many couples try couples therapy before making the decision, and 70% find it effective.

Learn Methods Of Acceptance And Healing With A Professional

How To Practice Radical Acceptance 

Radical acceptance is a skill from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) that outlines how to accept circumstances you may not be able to change. It can help reduce emotional distress based on grief, loss, breakups, or difficult decisions. You can practice it through the following steps: 

  1. Determine what you want to accept. Is it a loss? A breakup? A stressor in your life? 

  2. Remind yourself why this situation cannot be changed or why you do not want to change it. 

  3. Remind yourself of the situation's causes and why those causes led to it. 

  4. Practice accepting your reality openly. If you feel judged or hear unkind thoughts in your head, let them pass without judging or refuting them. Then, go back to accepting. 

  5. Imagine a scenario where you fully accept the situation and what it might look like. How would you act, feel, and think? 

  6. Be empathetic to your bodily sensations and emotions. Accepting doesn't necessarily mean not feeling hurt or upset about the situation. You can feel your emotions. 

  7. If you struggle with acceptance, do a pros and cons chart of accepting the situation. 

Counseling Options 

Many individuals who decide to let go of a connection may struggle with grief, upset, confusion, and other distressing emotions. During these times, it could be beneficial to speak to a professional. Additionally, if you're in a relationship or marriage, you might benefit from speaking to a couples counselor before deciding on the fate of your relationship. 

Couples and individual counseling can be done in person or online. Online therapy is an often popular alternative to traditional counseling because it can be done on your schedule and is often more flexible. Additionally, it can be accessible to those unable to meet an in-person therapist due to disabilities, finances, distance, or availability. Studies show that internet-based modalities can be more effective than traditional therapy for many issues, including depression and anxiety.  

If you're interested in trying online counseling, consider signing up through a platform like BetterHelp for individuals or ReGain for couples. Both platforms offers to phone, video, or live chat sessions with a licensed therapist. 

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"I've never been to therapy and so was really hesitant about opening up at first. But Whitney has just been so great! I signed up for BetterHelp because I was going through a breakup with problems I knew stemmed from problems with myself. I knew I felt unhappy in my relationship but could not for certain say why. Therapy with Whitney has been so great in helping me become more self aware and reflective. And, of course, the break up was hard at first. But every day, with Whitney, I was able to feel a little bit better than the day before."

Takeaway

There are many reasons why someone may let go of someone else. Counseling could be rewarding if you're considering moving on from a connection or discussing your possibilities with others. Reach out to a therapist or online counselor for further guidance and support.

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