When it comes to our friends, family members, or even TV characters, the choices we should make about relationships usually seem very obvious. “Do you two even like each other?” “You’re clearly miserable, break up already!” When it’s our own relationships, though, things tend to seem much less clear-cut. There are all these extenuating circumstances, and the idea of ending a relationship feels so final.
Alternatively, we may feel we have an overly itchy breakup trigger finger. Especially if you’re a more avoidant attachment style, every conflict or disconnect may leave you feeling like you should leave. How do you actually make an informed, thoughtful and healthy decision about whether it’s time to end a relationship? Here’s my take on some questions you should consider.
What’s the core issue?
If you’re thinking about whether you need to break up, the first step is to take a hard look at why that is. There are dozens, maybe infinite reasons why there might be concern about the future of your relationship — a recent conflict, an ongoing pattern of conflict, addiction issues, a feeling of unmet needs or wants, cheating, unequal distribution of domestic labor, communication issues, disconnect about the amount of sex you have… the list goes on. None of these reasons themselves are an indicator that you definitely should (or should not) break up.
Here are some issues that, if they’re present in your relationship, should be taken seriously and urgently as a reason to end things: your partner exhibits a pattern of control or manipulation with you, trying to control what you do, who you see, how you dress, how you spend your time, etc. If you feel fear or dread related to your partner, even if it’s only when they’re upset and other times they’re very loving; if you find yourself hiding or omitting parts of your relationship or your fights because you know they would concern other people in your life or your friends “wouldn’t understand;” if your partner threatens to hurt themselves, you or third parties if they don’t get their way, even when it’s because they’re triggered or mentally unwell — all these are things that should be taken very seriously, and are unlikely to be able to be worked through with time and communication (and even if they were, at what cost?).
Outside of those issues, most things fall into a very expansive “gray area” where they could be a reason to end a relationship, or they could be something you work through. This is completely individual to each couple; some people will break up over something that seems totally trivial to outsiders, and it’s the right decision for them; some couples will stay together through cheating or betrayal and it’s what’s best for their relationship. The first step, though, is to name what’s going on — although there may be a dozen things happening in your relationship, what’s the major thing that’s got you looking at the door?
What’s the outlook for possible change around this issue?
Some issues might be genuinely intractable — if, for instance, your partner is going to move across the country for work and you aren’t sure that you’re either interested in moving or available to do your relationship long-distance, that’s not something that’s subject to change; it’s really more of a tough decision that you and you alone can make.
Many issues, however, hang in the balance of potential future improvement — your relationship with alcohol bothers your partner, and they want you to change it, or you frequently find yourself fighting about your partner’s difficult family, and you want them to set better boundaries. One key question to ask yourself if you’re looking at the possibility of breaking up is whether the situation that’s bothering you could change at all.
Sometimes this is an external change and asks for patience on your part. For instance, if your relationship is suffering because your partner is so stressed at their toxic job, could it all change on a dime if your partner is able to get a different manager or a different job?
More often, the possibility for our relationship to improve is about us, the people in it. The real question, much of the time is what are we willing to do or change? Much of the time, we’re hoping this is something our partner will do: decide to listen to us more, agree to go into therapy, get a better work-life balance, and hold better boundaries with the friend who makes us uncomfortable. And by all means, if those things are a consistent issue in your relationship, then your partner’s willingness to change is an important factor. Is your partner willing to try to do things differently? Have they offered to? Have they demonstrated follow-through by aligning their actions with their words?
Often, though, in our hurt and emotional exhaustion, we tend not to ask ourselves what we’re willing to do or change. If you’re being brutally honest with yourself — and really listening to what your partner has told you about their end of things — is there anything you could do differently that would change the momentum of the current bad situation? If so, are you willing to do it? Even situations that are objectively our partner’s fault — like if our partner cheated on us — are ones in which we hold some accountability for whether the relationship moves forward at all. Your partner could do and say everything you want them to in order to apologize for, heal and move on from the harm of cheating, but if you aren’t willing to (eventually, after it’s been earned) let go of resentment and move on too, then the relationship is over, and there’s no point in trying to stay together. Is that something you’re willing to try to do?
It’s possible the answer is no, and that’s okay — we’re allowed to decide to let relationships end for our own well-being. But it’s important to be honest with ourselves if that’s what we’re doing.
What have you already tried?
If the problem(s) in your relationship are things that could potentially change, we often feel that it doesn’t matter anyway, because we’ve already “tried everything.” What do we actually mean when we say that? Often, and I say this without judgment, it ends up meaning that we’ve already fought about this issue a lot. That isn’t a bad thing; communication is necessary to solve a problem. But it’s surprisingly easy to have ineffective communication, which can often devolve into endless arguments.
First, ask yourself whether the communication about this issue in your relationship has been clear, healthy, and direct. It’s possible that no matter how much you feel like you’ve gone over and over a problem, your communication has been passive-aggressive or indirect, and so your partner hasn’t been set up for success in trying to address the issue. Second, ask yourself what the goal of the communication was — did you have discussions about how to solve the problem, oriented toward action, or were the discussions more about sharing emotions or blaming?
One thing we can sometimes forget about communication is that while it is absolutely fundamental, it’s meant to serve as a starting point to take action. It’s important to communicate about your needs and wants, especially to let someone know they aren’t being met, but that’s only the first step; ideally, we’d also make asks, or a plan about how things can change, commit to actions related to those asks and check in on the progress of those things. This is what’s involved in “working on the relationship” or “working on our issues” — talking about it is only the step by which you determine what needs to be worked on. If this step into actually “doing the work” sounds overwhelming or confusing, it may also be a sign that talking to a relationship therapist or coach could be helpful in navigating the issues you’re currently facing.
Would you be willing to stay in this relationship if nothing changes?
While it’s an oversimplification to say that people don’t (or can’t) change, it’s not an oversimplification to say that many of us enter and stay in relationships that don’t meet our needs because of an idea we have about how they could look in the future. While people and relationships can and do improve over the long term, it takes time and a lot of hard work if it happens at all, and it may not. Dramatic, short-term change is even more unlikely, bordering on impossible.
Without calling into question the importance of working on your stuff, and the many relationships that have gone through transformative difficulties and ended up being stronger because of it, it’s important to consider this question: Would you be willing to stay in this relationship if nothing meaningfully changes? If the answer is “yes, although I would have complaints, or would change my behavior accordingly,” then you likely don’t need to break up. If the answer is no, then you should seriously consider what that means for you — and communicate clearly to your partner that your relationship is on the line.