One of the most frequent questions I get for my weekly advice column, Ask Me Anything, amounts to this: “How do I know when I should end my relationship?”
People in every imaginable situation—married or just dating, of both genders and all ages—struggle with this issue. In my opinion, most end up staying way too long.
Fears of being alone, of starting all over again, of being broke, of breaking up our families, of hurting our partner and of change can keep us stuck. Many of us end up wasting months, years or even entire lifetimes trapped in a destructive dance with a person we once loved, but who now—for whatever reason—is sucking the life out of us, as we are likely sucking the life out of them.
There is no simple answer to the question of when we should break up—how could there be? Relationships are nothing if not complex, multi layered and emotionally charged in all directions. But there are ways to get a clearer mind about what we need to do—and many times, a clear mind is the only thing standing between us and a better life.
Here are some things we can ask ourselves when we are wondering what our next step should be. (Hint, if you’re already eagerly scrolling down the list, there’s a good chance you are looking for permission to git.)
Am I more happy, or less happy, when I am around my partner?
Here’s the thing—no relationship is perfect. No one can “make” us happy, and no one is going to be fun to be around all the time—but, if being around our partner does not tend to make us happy, that’s a problem.
If I could walk away today, without hurting anyone or having anyone be angry with me, would I?
Sometimes (a lot of the time) the only thing keeping us with someone is fear. Often that fear is totally valid—if we leave, we may incur financial hardship, face being a single parent, endure embarrassment over the “failure” of the relationship, be blamed for the break up or be seen as “the bad guy” by our friends, family or children—or worse, we may be in an abusive relationship, where we could be physically or emotionally harmed.
Though all of these circumstances are scary, if fear is our primary motivation for staying, it is likely time to gather all our strength, creativity and resolve, and reach out for help and support from professionals as well as the people we love, and make a change.
Do I feel desperate to keep the relationship in tact?
Healthy relationships are devoid of desperation. If we feel we are constantly chasing our partner down, apologizing, trying to make ourselves understood or trying to “fix” ourselves or our partner, something is seriously out of whack.
Am I often consumed by jealousy or is my partner overly jealous? Or conversely, do I feel numb toward my partner, or do they feel/act numb toward me?
This is related to the previous question. Any overabundance of negative emotion, or a notable lack of positive emotion, means our relationship is unbalanced. Jealousy and numbing are both signs that we don’t trust our partner to keep our best interests at heart, so we either try to force them to do so, or convince ourselves that we don’t care.
While this may not be a rock solid reason to leave, it is a huge red flag, and is likely to remain a a destructive issue unless a professional intervention is sought.
What would my life look like without my partner?
Really imagine it, down to the last detail. When we allow ourselves to freely dream, do we see a bigger life out there than the one we’re relegated to with our partner?
Does our partner help us to attain our dreams (and we, theirs), or do we feel suffocated and trapped?
If I met my partner today, would I still choose to be with him/her?
As the saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Nowhere is this more true than in romantic relationships.
But imagine seeing your partner for the very first time today. Would you find them interesting? Attractive? Caring?
When I think about seeing my partner after a long day at work, I feel ____________________ .
Sometimes people assume that the deterioration of a relationship is unavoidable. That no matter how in love we start out being, eventually we’ll just end up going through the motions.
I’m here to tell you, emphatically, that that isn’t true.
Sex may fade, fights will be had, looks will go, but generally speaking, we should always be excited to see our partner after a long day of not seeing them—and they should be excited to see us. We all deserve that.
Do I respect my partner? Do they respect me?
Can we love someone and not respect them? I don’t know, but we certainly can’t stay in a relationship with them, nor they with us.
Contempt is like a virus that eats up all our loving feelings and spits them out brazenly on the floor.
What will my life with my partner look like in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?
Can we see our future, and does it look bright? If we are in a healthy long-term relationship, we should be easily able to envision some version of the future, and that vision should make us smile.
If the future looks more like a long, dark tunnel from which there seems to be no escape, we might want to reevaluate.
Every partnership will have its ups and downs, and by enjoying the ups and weathering the downs, we can often find great depth and unimagined gifts within the parameters of it. But when we find ourselves there bereft of joy, feeling trapped and riddled with anger, disappointment or hopelessness, we need to remember—the only thing really keeping us in chains is our decision to stay in them.
Author: Erica Leibrandt
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Photo: Flickr/JULIAN MASON