How to Know When Your Relationship Is Over

Questioning is normal, but here are some important considerations.

Posted Dec 23, 2020

If anything can be said about 2020, it's that it caused disruption in virtually everyone's lives, from minor inconveniences to devastating losses, from career uncertainty to questioning your relationship—especially if you're under one roof all day, every day, for months on end. And stressful situations can make even the most solid of relationships come under scrutiny, so just because you are questioning yours does not mean that all is lost.

Furthermore, there are few hard and fast rules about when a relationship should end—outside of the situations where there is emotional or physical abuse. That said, there are several considerations that may help clue you in to whether your relationship is going past the point of no return. None of these factors alone should be considered a death blow, and in fact some of them may have nothing to do with your relationship but rather be about your own individual stress levels.

But the more of these criteria you meet, the more you have to ask yourself: Am I willing to do the work to get back on track with this relationship? Is my partner? Mutual commitment to the relationship itself—and to repairing it—is always cause for hope. But in absence of that, it's time to do some serious thinking.

Please note that these signs apply to what has been a relatively serious, committed relationship that has lasted for some time. If you are questioning whether to continue to date someone when it is in the early stages, that will be addressed in my next blog post. 

1. Conflict is constant.

When fighting is unrelenting, to the point where there are very few minutes of calm, take it seriously. Fighting about fighting, or not fighting fair, are both signs that the battles have grown big enough that they need to be addressed. 

2. Or, you've stopped even bothering to fight.

Some couples become so exhausted by fighting that they simply stop, but that doesn't mean that all is well—far from it. In these cases, they often stop sharing things with each other altogether, and have zero ability to bring up any sort of disagreement because they know that it will just spiral out of control. 

3. It doesn't occur to you to share good news with your partner.

Your partner should not have to be your only cheerleader, and there may be plenty of types of news—an amazing bargain on that item you wanted! some good words from the boss who's hard to please!—that you naturally share with another friend first, perhaps because that friend has a mutual interest or is closer to the situation. But when all personal good news feels irrelevant to your relationship as a whole, or when you feel your partner no longer knows you well enough or even cares about what's happening in your life for it to be worthwhile to talk about, that's a sign that things are not well between the two of you. 

4. One of you wants to seek help, and the other doesn't.

It's a classic problem that has spelled the end of many a marriage: counseling is clearly needed, and yet only one person is willing to take that step. Not only does that represent a fundamental impasse in perspectives about how and whether the relationship can be saved, but it also means that there is not joint motivation to actually try to do the work that would make a difference. 

5. You feel increasingly drained by your partner, even when they're not particularly needy.

Romantic relationships are like friendships in this way; spending time together may not always be fulfilling, but it shouldn't be consistently draining over long periods of time. Sometimes time together is draining because one partner is going through something difficult—which is a natural part of the long-term reciprocity that relationships call for. Other times, one partner is a particularly demanding or needy person, which can occasionally be worked through if both partners are motivated. But when your partner isn't being particularly needy and yet you still find it so tiresome to be around them, that is often a sign that the dynamic between the two of you is souring significantly. 

6. You can't agree on what the problem is.

It's particularly difficult to begin to work on a problem when there is a total disagreement about what that problem is. This isn't insurmountable, as professional help can typically give insight into the roots of the issues. That said, if each of you blames the other as being the true origin of what is going wrong, it will be hard to find common ground, or be willing to be vulnerable enough for real change. 

7. You're increasing your justifying of staying in the relationship for external factors.

There are many tempting reasons to stay in a dysfunctional relationship: financial security, avoiding temporary disruption of children's lives, fear of dating again, or even just the inertia of not wanting to move out. But the most important criterion for whether to stay in a relationship is the relationship itself, between the two of you, with nothing muddying the waters. If you are increasingly desperate to find items to add in the "pro" column, then it means that the "con" column is likely pretty substantial. 

8. You've begun to treat each other with superficial politeness.

Similar to a total lack of fighting, a completely detached and superficial civility is often a sign that both partners have checked out. If your partner feels more like a roommate or acquaintance than someone with whom you have a high level of emotional intimacy, there is a substantial problem.  

9. You feel like a different person than the one your partner believes you to be.

Subtle misrepresentations of who you are can add up over time. And if it has gotten to the point where your partner could realistically endorse the cliche of "I don't even know who you are anymore!" then that is a sign to take seriously. 

10. You feel that trust has evaporated.

Trust is the foundation of a committed relationship, and a lack of it hollows out a relationship from the inside. If it is truly able to be built back up, both partners need to be committed not only to the repairing process but to fixing the root of the problems that led to the breakdown of trust in the first place. 

11. You make up excuses to not spend time together.

In the strange 2020 world, many couples may need more day-to-day space with each other than they are getting, as they are perhaps spending more time together than they ever have before (or were meant to). That can be normal. But more generally, if you dread spending time with your partner to the point where you'd rather do most other things, that should raise questions.

12. You're no longer laughing together like you used to.

Sharing a sense of humor and laughing together can be an important component of a relationship. It builds connection, allows you to enjoy each other's company, brings joy and helps take the edge off of life's difficulties. When you notice it disappearing, it's worth paying attention to. 

13. You've begun to intensely question your future together.

Romantic partners never need to have their future completely figured out, and in fact, being too rigid about what the future "must" look like can make it hard to adapt if things don't go according to plan. That said, if you have intense doubts about whether or not you can even envision a life with this person—or whether or not you want to—it is important to take them seriously. 

14. You no longer have the desire to grow together.

People change throughout their lives, as they should—growth doesn't start once you become an adult or settle into a committed relationship. But if you want to remain committed, being able to grow together and adapt to each other's changes is important. If you notice that you don't want to change along with your partner—you reject the direction they're moving in, or don't want them alongside your own metamorphosis—it is a sign that your relationship may not be built to stand the test of time. 

15. There is resentment that keeps getting worse, and you refuse to work on it.

Resentment doesn't have to kill a relationship, but if you don't actually want to work on diminishing that resentment, it most certainly can. Some people want to hold on to resentment for their own reasons, perhaps because their hurt feels too great to forgive and let go. In other cases, the person who is resented is incapable of stopping the behavior that is causing resentment—another potential dead end. 

16. You stopped talking about things big and small because it's easier not to let each other in. 

Emotional intimacy is what keeps people connected and invested in a relationship. If you find that there has been a diminution in the details that you share about your life, it may start to become a snowball effect—you share less and less over time because there is so much that they don't know, it's just easier to keep it all to yourself. This erodes intimacy even more quickly. 

17. You're taking pleasure in revenge, or hurting each other.

Much like not wanting to give up resentment, wanting to seek revenge can poison a relationship from inside out. The desire for revenge, though a natural instinct, runs counter to the collaboration, empathy, and trust rebuilding that is necessary to get back on a healthy path. 

18. You constantly have to apologize for who you are.

Being able to be your genuine, authentic self, and be not just accepted but loved for it, is one of the great gifts of a supportive relationship. In the absence of that, it may be time to re-evaluate and examine your true level of compatibility. 

19. Your goals are totally at odds with each other, with little wiggle room or compromise. 

Sometimes even relationships where there is a great deal of love can be stymied by goals that are totally different. One person wants to have adventures abroad, flying by the seat of their pants with a backpack for the next 10 years, whereas the other wants a baby and a picket fence as of yesterday. One person is okay with 80-hour workweeks in order to get where they want to be professionally, whereas the other wants dinner together every night. There can be hope with compromise, but without that, the warning signs are hard to ignore. 

20. You no longer respect your partner's values. 

There are two parts of this that are problematic. One is that when respect as a whole is lost within a relationship, it can be very hard to build it back without a serious commitment on behalf of both members of the couple. The other is perhaps even more troubling: Shared values are important to a relationship's staying power. And while they don't need to overlap exactly, if you disagree with each other's values, it raises serious questions about long-term compatibility.

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