I was a serial monogamist for over a decade. I’m not proud to say that I was barely single that entire time. I went through a lot of beginnings but also a lot of endings. From a scientific standpoint, I gathered a solid amount of data from those breakups.
I concluded that knowing when it’s time to break up is rarely obvious. (Note: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse are serious issues. Abuse is always reason enough to end a relationship.)
But if your concerns are less severe, there’s no sure-fire guide to tell when a relationship has expired. Blame it on nuance.
Yet, there are ways to gauge your happiness in the relationship and if things are repairable. Before breaking up, consider asking these 5 questions: they're a good place to start.
1. What is the real issue?
Do you two argue over the dishes or that one of you never buys new toothpaste? Those things can be pretty annoying, but they’re not the actual problem.
Whenever my boyfriend and I begin nitpicking specific actions, we switch modes. Instead of focusing on the facts, we consider what we’re feeling. Because the issue is rarely that my boyfriend forgot to take out the trash, it’s that I feel unsupported with the chores or disrespected when he doesn’t follow through on promises.
When you hone in on the underlying issue, you can communicate it, come up with a solution or just consider if the problem is too big to tackle. You also spend a lot less time arguing– a nice bonus.
2. Have you both been communicating enough?
The man I dated before my current boyfriend had a habit of ignoring me for a week whenever we got into a fight. At the time, I thought it was normal because he was “taking his space.” But it made me resent him.
Now, I know that kind of behavior is called stonewalling, one of the four unhealthy communication habits that can predict the end of a relationship. The other three– contempt, criticism, and defensiveness– also impede healthy conflict resolution between a couple.
And if you’re not able to resolve your conflicts, what kind of relationship is that?
That’s why it’s important for both people to be at least willing to work on effective communication. If your partner is open to hearing your side, takes responsibility, and looks for solutions instead of just problems, you have something to work with.
3. What side of you does your partner bring out?
Clingy, anxious, insecure, and worried. That describes how I felt with my two most recent exes. I’ll admit that there was some work to be done on myself, but feeling like a total mess around my partners was a sign of more than just my issues.
I always say that you can’t heal in a relationship that constantly triggers you. Any work that you try to do on yourself will be undermined by your partner, making you feel like crap. A partner is someone who should support you rather than drag you down.
So consider this question: what side of you does your partner bring out? If it’s anything but positive or a neutral sense of content, then think if the way they treat you is the culprit of why you’re unhappy.
4. Do you have high standards or are they reasonable standards?
Blame the media (or Disney princess movies) for giving us unrealistic expectations. Expecting your partner to make you happy, fill voids in your life, and meet all your needs is simply setting yourself up for disappointment.
Therapist Jeff Guenther, known on Tiktok as @TherapyJeff, gives a list of questions for people considering breaking up over an unmet need. My favorite from the list is, “Has anyone been able to meet this need?”
I love that question because it shows that sometimes, the issue isn’t the relationship. And it won't be solved from breaking up.
It’s a deeper problem that we’re carrying from relationship to relationship. If this is the case, you don’t have to forgo having that need met. But consider getting your need fulfilled outside of the relationship with a friend or communicating it differently to your partner.
And, on the note of communicating needs, are you throwing problems onto your partner and expecting them to figure it out, or are you helping them with solutions?
A past client of mine came to me upset that her boyfriend agreed to go to couple’s therapy but didn’t make any effort to book one.
After explaining to my client that expecting her boyfriend (with no experience going to therapy) to figure out where to find a therapist, pick one, and book a time that worked for both of them was a lot to expect. She needed to ask him what he wanted support with.
Before jumping right to breaking up, consider if you’ve clearly communicated what’s upsetting you and if you’re putting too much pressure on your relationship.
5. Have you come to terms with the fact relationships are boring sometimes?
Wouldn’t it be nice to live on the highs and passion of an early relationship? Well, that’s just not how relationships work. After about a year of being together, those feel-good hormones decrease significantly. Naturally, you become more used to your partner and what was once exciting is monotonous.
Where many people go wrong is that they take this natural phase of a long-term relationship as a sign that things aren’t working.
But if you're feeling bored in your relationship, congrats! It probably means you've been together for a while. This isn't to say that you have to succumb to relationship boredom for the rest of your life.
How you handle these lulls can determine if you'll last in the long run. Talk to your partner about how you've been feeling and develop ways to add some excitement to your relationship.
Consider going on dates like you used to. Starting a new hobby together. Try shaking things up in your relationship before jumping to breaking up.