Ask An Adult: How Can I Tell When It’s Time To Break Up With Someone?

We spoke to a range of experts to get the lowdown on whether it's time to fight... or take flight (dump them)Illustration by Agata Krolak

Ask An Adult: How Can I Tell It's Time To Break Up With My Boyfriend/Girlfriend?

by Nina Cromeyer Dieke |
Published on

As both a dumper and a dumpee, I have often debated between two equally valid but seemingly contrasting pieces of advice. On the one hand, we hear things like, ‘Don’t force it’ and ‘It shouldn’t be this much work’. On the other hand, ‘Relationships are work’ and ‘If you like someone, don’t give up’. So how do we reconcile these clashing counsels? How do we know whether to stick it out, or count our losses and walk away?

I spoke to some experts to collect some red flags to help you decide how to best move forward. If you’ve been having problems with your partner and are after some perspective, these five warning signs might indicate your relationship needs a serious re-think and possible termination.

In no particular order, watch out for the following:

Loss of sexual attraction

We’re all familiar with the fiery early days of a new entanglement when you can’t get enough of each other. However, in the same way a text from a new person gives you the feels but as time goes on it’ll probably say to pick up loo roll, so does the excitement behind sex change from exploring the unknown to becoming routine. But do not despair!

Priscilla De Llovio, a marriage and family therapist from Chicago, recognises that sex changes along with the nature of the relationship. ‘If there is a lack of sexual attraction, but still interest, the couple can work together to build a new cycle that is also healthy and happy,’ she says.

However, continuous lack of interest in sex is just bad for everyone involved. Sometimes it feels easier to just get on with it than to have to explain why you don’t want it. Maybe you’re still doing the deed while wishing it ends soon so you can watch Game of Thrones because even skull bashing is better than this.

A source who wanted to remain anonymous, who we’ll call Anonymous, agrees: ‘Lack of sexual attraction can bring distrust, jealousy, low self-esteem and infidelity.’ And you don’t want any of that.

You keep having the same fight

Mathematician James Murray and psychologist John Gottman worked together to decipher how tension spirals down to a negativity threshold, where one person’s negative effect becomes so great that the partner can only react with matching negativity.

Greer refers to this as the point of no return, and I will call it the event horizon because that’s the point after which you get sucked into a black hole forever. If you are even thinking about your relationship as a black hole, you need to steer away right now because it won’t be fun like in *Interstellar, *but instead will be something called spaghettification, ie you get squashed.

In other words, if it starts to feel like all roads lead to conflict, it’s time to ditch your co-pilot.

And beware: couples who don’t argue are not necessarily free from disagreement. Julie Greer, senior accredited counsellor with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, says conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship.

‘Sometimes one partner dominates and the other loses voice, and that’s why they don’t conflict. It doesn’t mean it’s fine.’ The key here is balance, rather than being unable to yell or only ever yelling.

Loss of good conversation

Remember Uma Thurman’s immortal words from Pulp Fiction: ‘That's when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the f**k up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.’? She’s right.

Ashley, 33, from London, agrees: ‘A healthy couple should be comfortable doing anything together, even if it’s a casual silence while you’re in the pub sipping on a pint.’

If you feel that silence happens more often than conversation, and that when you do speak, the exchange feels forced or dismissed, you might be in trouble. Greer emphasises quality over quantity.

‘Practical things might be getting discussed and sorted, but knowing what’s going on with each other and how you’re feeling and thinking, what your dreams are, that’s important conversation. When that’s gone, then that’s worrying,’ she says.

You need a balance between being comfortable when silent and engaged when chatting. In her seminal book, The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts (don’t freak out, it applies at all stages), Dr Judith S Wallerstein outlines nine psychological tasks for a good partnership. Number 7: ‘Use humour and laughter to keep things in perspective and to avoid boredom and isolation.’ Simple.

Your partner feels like a social burden

You know when your boyfriend/girlfriend is chatting to your friends and you just cringe and regret bringing them because everything they say is so embarrassing? No? Good. But if you do and you often wonder how you fell for them in the first place, it’s probably not a good match.

To be fair, Greer says a certain level of disillusionment is normal. ‘Some of what you think you’ve got in a relationship is a bit of a fantasy and an illusion. Over time you find that this person is not exactly the wonderful person you once thought they were, and the other way around. How do you deal with the loss of what you thought you had, as opposed to the reality of what you have?’ she asks.

Well, it all comes down to respect towards your partner in terms of your opinion about their lifestyle and ideas. If you find yourself hyping up your partner to others as an attempt to fix him in your mind, but knowing he probably won’t live up to anyone’s expectations, end it. End it now. You’re only fooling yourself.

Loss of interest in doing things together

Greer says there are two basic fears in any relationship: fear of abandonment and fear of absorption, or feeling so smothered by your partner that you start losing your sense of identity. Naturally, you’ll want to branch out on your own occasionally.

‘Sometimes it’s appropriate to have separate activities, provided that you also have some in common. However, if the relationship has slipped to the bottom of the priority list, after work, friends, and family, that to me means danger,’ says Greer.

De Llovio agrees and makes an interesting point about trying to understand what others bring to your partner’s happiness that you don’t. She suggests developing a list of things that others provide, and working with your partner to do them together.

But if you’ve tried and failed to incorporate each other into your respective activities, or you just can’t be bothered, or you actively don’t want to, then it might be time to accept you don’t have much in common.

‘You cannot live two lives,’ says Anonymous. ‘If you find yourself wanting “alone time” or “friend time” too often, it could mean that you simply feel more comfortable, less stressed, and just better without their presence.’ Not good.

If you think you need to end it, then do it.

Breaking up sucks, no matter what side you’re on. One time I had a Twix bar for breakfast and Doritos for lunch all in one day after getting the axe. But you know what else sucks? Staying in a situation that doesn’t feel right. Sometimes it’s OK to love, learn and move on. You will get over it, they will get over it. Life is all about choices.

As Greer says: ‘If somebody is unhappy in the relationship, they need to live with it, change it or leave it.’

If this sounds harsh, English poet and philosopher David Whyte puts it differently in his poem, The Journey: ‘You are not leaving. Even as the light fades quickly now, you are arriving’.

And you never know what can happen. Ashley said she and her partner of 4.5 years called it off, moved out and went their separate ways over two years ago. To this day, they’re still best friends.

All power to you, and remember that it’s never selfish to want to be truly happy.

Like this? You might also be interested in...

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Follow Nina on Twitter: @nination

Illustration: Agata Krolak

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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