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As a couples therapist, I often receive questions about how to know when we’ve checked out of a relationship.
While there is no definitive list of personal red flags—every issue is potentially fixable with two willing partners who love each other—there are a few situations that may indicate it’s time to move on, or at least to seek professional help.
1. We have no desire for sexual intimacy with our partner.
Sex plays a vital role in adult romantic relationships. The intimacy created when we make love becomes a fundamental form of communication between our partners and us. Lack of sexual interest in our partner is perhaps the first warning sign that we have given up on the relationship (at least as a romantic partnership; there are many healthy couplings that are non-sexual).
Of course, sex drives ebb and flow in every relationship. However, when the thought of making love with our partner stirs nothing in us on a regular basis (and there is no underlying sexual trauma to address), it’s a strong indicator that we’ve given up hope on the union.
2. We no longer take an interest in our partner’s life.
At the beginning of our relationships, we’re normally invested in our partner’s day-to-day life. What they did, what interested them, and how they experienced the world played a major part in our blossoming connectivity as a couple. If you’ve given up on the relationship, your partner’s life is no longer of interest to you. In fact, it may seem futile or even flat-out uncomfortable to ask, “How was your day?” Your partner’s path in life might also feel quite far from yours—miles away, emotionally speaking.
3. We often bicker or fight when we communicate.
Communication is the core of all healthy relationships. Contempt and resentment build up over time when conflicts are not adequately resolved through open, nonjudgmental discussion and/or therapy. This results in a seemingly constant stream of nonproductive arguments.
Using extreme words like “never” and “always” indicates that we’ve given up on the possibility of change (for example, “You never listen to me,” or “You always have to have the last word.”). The finite nature of this kind of language leaves no room for improvement in the relationship; the verdict has already been handed down.
4. Our plans rarely if ever involve our partner.
In the past, you and your partner may have taken great pleasure in scheduling shared events like dinner, holidays, and parties. Now, you tend to make your own plans. Perhaps you’ve justified this shift by asserting that “they do their thing and I do mine.” In a healthy relationship, this is an admirable attitude, as it maintains the balance of autonomy and partnership. Spending time apart can be a real benefit for the relationship—as long as you also spend loving and connective time together. If your separate lives rarely unite, it can be an indication that you no longer want them to do so.
5. The joy of being together is gone.
When you and your mate spend time together, it may seem everything your partner does upsets, embarrasses, or offends you. Where you were once loath to leave each other’s company, even to use the bathroom, now you avoid bumping into them in the kitchen. Somewhere along the line, the loving qualities you saw in each other have been painted over with resentment and bitterness.
6. We feel bad about ourselves when we’re with our partner.
No one likes to feel unhappy in a relationship. If communication with our partner has been reduced to cordialities alternating with nasty snips and outright fights, it takes a toll on how we see ourselves. There may even be emotional abuse from one or the other, deepening the lack of self-worth. We may ask ourselves how we ended up with this person and feel poorly about our judgment and subsequently ourselves.
7. We feel angry or depressed much of the time.
Ideally, our home is an oasis from the busyness and stress of the outside world. When we are no longer happy in our relationships, we may dread walking through the door of our own house. This leaves us feeling unsettled and trapped, even in the privacy of our personal space. That sense of being trapped can, in turn, lead to anger about the situation the relationship is in. If not properly addressed through healthy discussion or therapy, that anger may be either expressed unproductively—through personal attacks on our partner—or repressed. Over time, repressed anger develops into depression, leaving us feeling helpless and sad.
8. We often complain to friends and family about the relationship.
When your relationship is failing—or already dead—you need an outlet. Speaking to friends and family about your dissatisfaction may help to express some of those frustrations you’re feeling. But the more fatalistic your tone and language, the more “checked out” of the relationship you are.
For example, at a party with friends, you may find yourself refreshing your drink and slipping in a comment like, “I don’t know what’s going on with John.” This could express concern and open up a dialog. Alternately, in the same scenario, you may remark disparagingly about your partner: “I can’t believe John insisted on wearing that ugly shirt tonight. He has no idea how to dress.” The resentment in the latter statement is palpable and indicates disengagement from the partnership. Additionally, you may be prepping your loved ones for the inevitable demise of the relationship.
9. We spend a lot of time fantasizing about other people or behave as though we’re single when we’re out alone.
Although you may not overtly cheat on your partner, excessive daydreaming about what life would be like without him or her—or considering other potential partners, both realistic and fantastical—is a definite sign you’ve pulled away. Perhaps when you’re alone you behave as though you are not in a relationship at all. You may refer to yourself in singular terms. For example, you tell your favorite clerk at the bank, “I’m going to the Cape this summer” when in reality you’re traveling with your partner. The “we” gets weeded out of your conversations with others. You begin testing the waters to feel what it would be like to be single.
10. A future without our partner seems acceptable.
The relationship has hit such a down point that you begin to imagine life without your mate. This life feels possible, viable, and even preferable. Playing out the scenarios of a separate life in our minds is a way to rehearse life without our partner. We’re setting the stage for a departure from the relationship. Once we’ve imagined this solitary life enough times, the reality is typically not far behind.
Don’t worry if a few things on this list feel familiar—all relationships have ups and downs. But if you feel like this article truly speaks to your daily experience, it’s likely time to have a sit-down with your partner. Perhaps it’s time to reassess your relationship or turn to couples counseling for assistance.