“For months now I’ve been thinking we need to call it quits,” Meredith* explains, her blue eyes looking brighter than usual as the sun beams into my office. Indeed, the majority of our individual therapy sessions have involved talking about the difficulties she is having in her romantic relationship of two years. “But how do I know that breaking up is the right choice? How does someone ever know that?”
This is certainly not the first time I’ve been asked this question in therapy, and figuring out how to respond poses a number of ethical dilemmas: how do I respect the person’s autonomy while also highlighting my observations in a way that’s therapeutic, respectful, and helpful? Does the person want to hear my feedback in the first place or are they speaking rhetorically?
Regardless of how I might approach such a situation, hearing this question has made me think: how does someone know if/when it’s time to call it quits in a relationship? What are the “signs" that suggest this is the best option for us?
First thing’s first: why is making the decision to break up so hard anyway?
We human beings are not always the most rational creatures. Rather, it’s very common for us to employ faulty logic or get caught in different psychological traps, consciously or not. The sunk cost fallacy is a term used to describe our general tendency to continue devoting time, energy, or money into something simply because we’ve already invested time, energy, and money into it so far. An inconsequential example of this is keeping an expensive sweater that you never wear because you paid a lot for it.
We see this play out in relationships constantly: the longer people have been in a relationship, the harder it is to break up up due to the amount of time, energy, and money they’ve already committed to it.
Why does this happen? For starters, we humans experience great discomfort with cognitive dissonance—the experience of feeling a disconnect between what's happening in reality and what we believe about the world and the people within it. When this occurs, we usually alleviate our discomfort by altering our beliefs or changing situations in a way that makes them fit our beliefs. For example, if you think all smokers are irresponsible and you start smoking, you'll either have to stop smoking or start seeing smokers are more responsible; after all, failing to do so would mean that you, then, are irresponsible, which might make you uncomfortable.
Another reason the sunk cost fallacy occurs is because we feel guilty about waste, whether this applies to feeling guilty about wasting our own time, money, and energy or other people’s.
I bring this up to normalize why it's so difficult to make this decision, especially if you’ve been with someone for a long period of time or overcome significant events or hardships together. Simultaneously, it’s important to acknowledge the negative consequences that can come with falling into the sunk cost fallacy trap. Just because something was worth investing at one point in time doesn't mean that it’s still worth investing in. Also, deciding to stay in a relationship solely because you feel guilty doesn’t do anyone any favours. Trust me when I say that you’ll likely become resentful and the other person will feel miserable being with someone who largely feels distant and disinterested in the relationship.
But back to our original question: what are the signs that tell us we need to call it quits?
1. You’re waiting for a catastrophic change to occur in the other person so you can be happy.
I’m not talking about small changes here like the person learning to put the toilet seat down more often, I’m talking about big personality changes like wanting them to be less selfish, change their minds about having kids, and more. If you've saying things like, "If only they [had this super major change in their personality], things would be better…” then you might need to examine two things: is what you’re expecting is actually doable or realistic. If you find that it isn’t, then can you readjust your expectations and live with that? Or is this unfortunately a deal breaker?
2. Examine the realms of willingness, ability, and time.
I always tell couples that there are three areas we need to assess when starting therapy: how willing is each partner to put in the work required to improve the relationship? How capable is each person of working on the domains that the other person would like them to? And how much “gas" do they have left in the tank to work on the relationship?
If Partner A says that they aren't really willing to work on the relationship, that they’ve “always been a bad communicator” and don’t even feel like they care to learn the skills, and want the relationship to get fixed pronto, I doubt the couple will experience any significant improvements.
3. You’re constantly looking for romantic attention from other people.
It’s one thing to casually wonder what it would be like to be single from time to time; it’s another thing to constantly look for attention from the opposite sex, continually flirt with people, give out your number whenever you’re out, take off your wedding ring, etc. If you’re inching closer and closer to cheating, it might be time to reassess if it’s time to leave the relationship and save everyone some serious emotional pain.
4. You often wish your partner would do something that would give you an “excuse" to leave.
If you often think about how relieved you’d be if your partner cheated on you, came out of the closet, etc., then it seems pretty clear to me that you desperately want to leave the relationship but don’t feel like you have the courage to break it off.
5. Your perpetual problems are deal breakers.
Psychological researcher John Gottman has conducted 40 years of research on couples and marriages. His research has revealed that 70% of a couple’s relationship issues are perpetual and unsolvable. For example, let’s say you can’t stand your in-laws: it’s unlikely that they’re going to completely change their personalities and you’ll one day wake up wanting to go for Sunday brunch with them. The key thing here is to figure out what your perpetual problems are, if you can live with them, and how you are going to navigate them as a couple if/when they do come up in the future. Conversely, if you feel like you can't live with these perpetual problems, it might be time to call it quits.
6. There’s abuse in the relationship—and the abuser isn't taking accountability.
Abuse exists on a spectrum. On the more extreme end we see physical violence like hitting and punching, extreme forms of financial abuse, sexual coercion, and more. However, there are more subtle forms of abuse that can be incredibly insidious. The most common “subtle” forms of abuse I see in couples are crazymaking, gaslighting, possessiveness and/or jealousy, isolation, and others.
Of course, while no form of abuse is ever okay, things get really problematic when the abuser struggles to take any accountability for his or her actions. If I tell someone that they are gaslighting and they can admit, “Oh my gosh, wow, I had no idea I was doing that, let’s work on it,” we can do something. If someone just starts placing more blame on others and can’t own up to their actions, I struggle to feel hopeful about the future of their relationship.
7. You feel like it’s impossible to get through to your partner.
If you’ve repeatedly voiced your wants to your partner and tried every form of communication to get your point across to no avail, it might be a sign that your partner simply isn’t willing or capable of changing (see point #2). Additionally, if you feel like you have to go to extreme measures to catalyze any sort of change (i.e. staying at your parents’ place), then you and your partner might be on different pages about what you want out of the relationship and how much you’re each willing to work on it.
8. You're reading this in the hopes that it will give you permission to break up with your partner.
If you've been thinking about breaking up with your partner and are reading this in the hopes that it will finally say the exact thing you need to hear to make you do it, that's probably enough of a sign that it's time.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, you know yourself best. Just as you know what your version of “happy” feels like, you also know what your version of anxiety and depression feels like. If you just haven’t been feeling like yourself for quite some time—and are not hopeful that your old self will return unless there is a major change to the relationship—it’s time to consider if staying in the relationship is healthy for you from a mental and physical standpoint. I’ve worked with people who have told me that they haven't had an appetite in six months due to the fact that they're unhappy in their relationship. I watch them waste away week after week wondering when things are going to get better and it breaks my heart. As challenging and heartbreaking as it is, sometimes we have to love what’s best for us.
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* any names and characters discussed in blog posts are composites of a number of individuals with whom I’ve worked so as to protect client anonymity