There’s a lot of inertia around relationships – often, it’s easier to stay in something even though you know it’s not working or not what you really want than initiate the trauma of ending it and an uncertain future. So often, though, when you finally take the plunge and get out of a dysfunctional relationship the relief and freedom and potential of future connections is overwhelming. Here are a few signs that it’s really, really time to move on.
1. You’re both unhappy – and have been for a while
All couples go through bad patches, particularly over the long haul. There are always pressures from outside – jobs, kids, distances, families, friends – and occasional tensions between you, especially when you’re years in, living together and grappling with self-realization at the same time as being part of a couple. But with talking and communication and a certain amount of effort from both parties to prioritise the relationship and compromise on whatever’s causing the problem, it really is possible to come through stronger. The trouble comes when one person refuses to acknowledge the validity of the other’s feelings, or prioritize the relationship. Everyone’s unhappy sometimes, but it’s how the relationship deals with it that’s really a test. If your partner’s repeated response to your raising issues or needs is to a) ignore them b) tell you you’re wrong c) lie and/or d) refuse to modify their behavior, get gone already. If said unhappiness is due to you/your partner being emotionally abusive in any way, LEAVE NOW AND DON’T LOOK BACK.
2. Both of you blame the other
This is a tricky one, because sometimes one partner is more reasonable and responsive than the other, so blame can often be justified. (See previous – if one person’s being abusive, just go already.) But what I’m getting at is a toxic environment of resentment and mistrust – neither of you feel able to trust the other to meet your needs or look after the relationship, and despite often endless conflict neither of you seem able to improve things. Maybe make a last-ditch attempt to negotiate and/or salvage something from the wreckage, and if that doesn’t work out let things go. If you feel constrained by the other person more than you feel cultivated, and you blame them for that, it's very difficult for blame and recrimination not to be bubbling away beneath the surface.
3. You don’t touch (or express affection in other ways) anymore
Okay, so some couples aren’t very physically affectionate to start with, so if this is you, feel free to replace touching with your preferred level and type of affection. What I’m getting at is that every relationship is held together by quotidian reassurances that you love one another and have a bond, whether that’s verbal affection or secret love notes or filthy texts or physical affection or some combination of the above. (As a very touchy-feely and very verbal person, I need it all, all the time. Fortunately my partner is similarly inclined.) If that stops, and you’re living together but not touching affectionately or saying loving things or focusing on making the other person happy, then the relationship is basically an empty shell. Whether it’s because the feelings and impulses aren’t there anymore for you or the other person just feels so distant from you you can’t reach them, it’s definitely time to have a proper sitdown chat about ‘what the hell we are doing here’, ‘can we make it better?’ and if not ‘should we stop.’
4. You are always thinking about ending it
Either in terms of ‘if I was single I would,' or wondering whether you ought to, or knowing you ought to but not knowing how. If you ‘re constantly trying to reassure yourself that you should stay but struggle to come up with reasons why, then clearly your subconscious already knows it’s over, even if the rest of you is taking a while to catch up.
Lots of people try and sabotage relationships – intentionally doing things that will hurt or annoy the other person, breaches of trust, pushing their boundaries in the hopes they’ll end it so you don’t have to. Worse, then feeling contemptuous of their partners when they don’t. If this is you or your partner, just go already. One good friend posits ‘If you can’t respect yourself any longer if you stay with them’ as a dealbreaker, and as well as its superlative good sense it’s also a risk in this situation – if you’re so unhappy in the relationship you find yourself doing things you can’t countenance or respect, like petty cruelties, then you need to leave for your own sake almost as much as the other person’s.
6. There’s more bad than good
This is a pretty good rule of thumb, actually. If the bad times consistently outweigh the good times (for longer than the period where the good times outweighed the bad) then yeah, it’s totally time to go. Obviously, if it’s a decade-long relationship of mostly good times and you have a bad few weeks (barring major betrayals), maybe hang in there and try and fix it. If you’ve been together four years and pretty much consistently unhappy for at least the last two, then you need to get out or get through. If you find yourself only getting through the present of the relationship by thinking about how good things used to be, then part of you already knows it’s finished, and it’s just waiting for the rest of you to realize.
7. Fundamentally different life goals
I am reaching the age where this is often about who wants children and who doesn’t, but it goes for any major ideological or practical goal. Not only in terms of practical commitments – you’ve always wanted to travel so you take the exciting international job, they are quite happy living in the town where they grew up with all their schoolfriends – but in terms of ideological choices and preferences. Often ending a genuinely good relationship is actually the right thing to do if you’re heading in different directions and changing tack would involve one of you giving up on a dream or changing who you are as people. Sometimes it’s better to split up and (after a decent interval) stay friends than stick around making one another unhappy.
8. You have nothing to say to each other any more – but somehow keep bickering anyway
If nothing seems to connect you anymore other than being ‘in a relationship,' then said relationship is dead in the water. If there is no kindness between you and you find yourself (or your partner) saying or doing hurtful things simply because it’s the only way to emotionally reach the other person (or worse, not caring whether it’s hurtful or not) then really you need to get out. That’s not a healthy situation for anyone. Neither are constant low-level disagreements. If you can’t actually reach any resolution in areas of conflict and neither of you are willing or able to change your point of view, then there’s little point in continuing. If you can’t be honest with one another because you always end up arguing, then there’s no point in being together anymore. One perceptive friend points out that actually one of the biggest problems is a gulf in style of disagreement – a lot of what we perceive as ‘normal’ or reasonable modes of interaction is subconscious, and if for one person raised voices are tantamount to physical violence while for the other they’re a perfectly comfortable expression of mild irritation, then it’ll be very difficult to resolve that disjunct and any future disagreements in ways that work for both parties.
9. You don’t laugh together anymore
In fact, the things you once found hilarious and endearing now bore or irritate you. If you’re having a bad day and being around the other person makes you feel consistently worse, not better, then you’re really not in a good place. (Particularly if it’s like this for both people). If what used to be a source of love and joy and succour and reassurance even mid-crisis becomes something difficult and/or draining you feel better away from, then it’s probably preferable to end it already than continue damaging both of you. Again, this is potentially fixable, especially in the early stages, but it’s potentially fixable with a LOT of hard work and effort and compromise and dedication and talking and trying things and then trying other things if they don’t work. If that all sounds like a bit much effort, then the writing’s on the wall. (It says ‘Get out.’)
10. The sex is…not what you want or need
We all know about the grim spectre of Lesbian Bed Death, and we also know that often long-standing couples have less sex than newer ones for practical and emotional reasons. It’s not necessarily a problem if it’s not a problem for you guys specifically – some people are asexual or just not interested in prioritizing sex, which is fine. But if you’re both profoundly sexual people and yet you’re not having sex anymore – and perhaps more significantly, don’t WANT to have sex anymore – that is a majorly bad sign. You don’t have to be having sex all the time – as one wise friend of mine says, ‘it can be infrequent, but it still has to be good’ – but you do need to be enjoying it when it happens and having enough to keep you happy. If you and your partner have always had wildly differing sex drives, there are ways of managing that (openness? masturbation? compromise?) but you do have to both acknowledge it as an issue that matters and deserves to be addressed. As someone with a sky-high sex drive, I just know that I couldn’t be fulfilled long-term in a relationship with someone who wasn’t interested in sex more than once a month after the first few weeks. We’d both be unhappy. That kind of mutual incompatibility is a dealbreaker. It’s nobody’s fault, but it won’t go away if you ignore it, and much better to tackle the issue head-on than wait until somebody cheats or explodes or turns bitter and insulting.
11) You feel trapped, not enabled.
If your relationship is really good, it’ll feel like you’re infinitely more together than you could be separately. Like your partner enables you to be yourself, but more and more fulfillingly. If instead the relationship feels like a trap or a limitation, something you have to take into account but are no longer moving towards or flowering out of, then it’s a pretty good sign it’s not working anymore. Worse, if your partner is continually placing emotional demands upon you, or interpreting your emotional needs as unwarrantedly demanding, then you’re obviously heading in different directions. If they’re expecting you to save them – from mental illness, the hostile world, having to adult, whatever – but show absolutely no inclination to work on saving themselves, then you’d really be better off on your own than having to parent another adult (and it’s surprising how often this comes up).
Many thanks to Denny, Jo, Gretel, Claire, Maddie, Stacy, Eunice, Emma, Traci, Bugs, Psyche, CN, Mack, Tijana, Evan, Hannah, Ryll, Adina and the rest of my personal relationship advice mafia for their help with this article. And Toni for its inapplicability.
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