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How to Tell That a Relationship Is Over

What's the difference between "growing pains" and the beginning of the end?

Source: gpointstudio/Shutterstock

Even when you feel like you and your partner are the “perfect match,” there are going to be times when the relationship seems to lose steam. There will be times where you might feel like you and your partner are on different wavelengths, or living parallel lives rather than intersecting lives. These lulls happen in any relationship, because people are dynamic individuals. We’re not static, which is a good thing, or we wouldn’t be able to grow and learn from past experiences. We all change over time, and if our relationships are reflecting the changes that we are experiencing as individuals, the static state of the relationship may begin to feel like the beginning of the end of the relationship.

Are You Mad at Your Partner or Someone/Something Else?

Sometimes your frustrations with your relationship, though, are just a “safe space” to direct your frustrations with larger parts of your life. Maybe you’re in a dead-end job, or you feel that your life isn’t meeting all of the expectations that you might have had when you were younger. Maybe you feel like the “same old, same old” isn’t what you need right now. Before assuming that your partner is to blame, it’s important to figure out if your life would be better or worse if you were to break up.

Take a moment and imagine how your life would be different if your partner was no longer a part of it. Would you love your job any more than you do now? Would you have a more exciting social life? Would you be wind-sailing on the weekends instead of washing the sheets and towels?

Do You “Expect” Relationships to Be Rocky?

Sadly, there are a lot of people who grew up in homes that were dysfunctional, to the point that chaos and unpredictability are more comfortable for those kids when they become adults. Leading a quiet, simple existence can feel “wrong” to them, and they may try to stir up trouble in a relationship just to get the sparks flying. If you are that kind of partner, think about what a healthy relationship really could look like if you didn’t find ways to create chaos for its own sake.

Sexual Desire Hits Peaks and Valleys, Too

A lot of relationships hit “sexual lulls” the longer they last—it’s always impossible to maintain that early feeling of “sex hunger” or “passion fever” that new relationships often stir in people. It’s too exhausting for people to function at that high level of emotional and sexual arousal—regardless of how sure a couple might be that their passion will last forever. Once the typical challenges of home maintenance, children, work, and other commitments get thrown into the mix, there is increasingly less energy to focus on the needs of your partner.

When those sexual lulls show up, it’s okay. Romantic relationships that last are more about the intimate friendships that grow from the initial sexual attraction and the lasting companionship that partners enjoy with one another.

Who’s the Star of Your Favorite Fantasy?

Proverbial “bed death” happens, and it can be a normal, though not necessarily welcome, part of a long-term relationship. It is sadly true that familiarity with our partner can cool off our passion—novelty and innovation are “sexy,” whereas sharing a home—bathroom, kitchen, whatever—with a partner can make you feel more like roommates than lovers.

However, when your fantasies are taking time and energy away from the time and energy you should be spending with your partner, you’re probably crossing a line that you shouldn’t. Sexual fantasies about others can be fine if they are adding to your relationship with your partner, but if they are creating a world in which your partner’s role is shrinking, it’s time to either put someone else in your fantasies or begin a conversation with your partner about what you feel your needs might be that your partner isn’t helping you to meet

And What If You Can’t Recall the Early Sexual Attraction...?

If you want to know if it’s your partner or just your own issue, try to imagine what you felt the first time you and your partner kissed or had sex ... how does the memory make you feel? Do you get excited thinking about how hot the relationship was back then and feel even a shadow of the passion you felt when your partner was near you? If you can get back there in your head—and you like where your mind takes you—then you are probably still sexually attracted to your partner.

If you still enjoy the thought of being intimate with your partner, but don’t feel like you have anywhere near the energy to spend an hour in bed with your partner, that’s actually a good sign, too. Pressure, stress, fatigue, external demands, these all take a lot of the emotional and physical energy that you would need for intimacy with your partner.

When just the thought of your partner being close or touching you intimately is off-putting or mildly “disgusting,” it may signal that the relationship is in need of an overhaul, or that a breakup is potentially near. While sex is never the glue that makes a relationship a long-term success, if you can no longer take any pleasure in even a memory of sexual satisfaction with your partner or feel a hint of desire to be with your partner in an intimate manner, something is definitely amiss.

Does Being Angry at Your Partner Mean the Relationship Is Over?

Crankiness and crabbiness are usually feelings that are motivated by our inner mental processes. We’re mad about how something happened at work, or something we have to do that we don’t want to do, or we’ve been on a diet that is making us “hangry,” or we just woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Everyone gets cranky occasionally; however, if your level of crabbiness seems to have been amped up for more than a day or two, it might mean that something is bothering you on a deeper level than you want to explore. We “hide” deeper feelings (from ourselves and from others) with more socially acceptable negative attitudes sometimes, and when we find ourselves behaving in ways that aren’t the typical way we behave, we might need to do a little soul-searching to get a clearer picture of where our attitude is coming from.

If you find that you’re irritated by your partner just because you’re in the same room, and you don’t like the way your partner is crunching ice, wearing their clothes, using their fingers to eat their meal, etc., it’s not necessarily your partner’s behavior that is the issue—it’s more likely something that is going on inside you that might need some exploration. A lot of us want to snap at our partners, because we’re ticked off about something else entirely—we choose partners and families as our “safe spaces” to take out our “not so pretty” feelings.

When you can’t stand looking at your partner or dread your partner’s return home or feel like you’re going to scream if your partner starts telling the same joke/boring story/dumb remark/etc., then you probably need to sit down and talk honestly about whether or not the relationship is growing into what both you and your partner need it to be.

Are Arguments Escalating?

Every couple has different reasons and assigns different purposes to fighting or arguing. Some people grew up in households where “arguing” was seen as normal conversations. Other people fear that the first time they disagree with their partners, the relationship is too far gone to save. We really are the product of the environments in which we grew up.

Healthy Couples Fight, but Not Usually All the Time

The definition of a healthy family is not a family that doesn’t experience conflict — a healthy family is one that knows how to use the conflict to direct change and growth. When fighting is happening, though, just because you don’t enjoy being around your partner—when every little thing they do is driving you up the wall, or everything they do seems “wrong,” and they refuse to admit that you are “right,” or your desires and preferences are constantly at odds with your partner’s, that’s when there truly might be a serious problem.

Conflict happens in every relationship, but if neither you nor your partner are using the conflict as a motivator to change your behaviors to enrich the connection and the relationship, that’s not a good use of differences in opinion.

Change Takes Time: If You Want to Enhance Your Relationship, Know That It Takes Work

If your partner is actually trying to change, then giving your partner some space to do so isn’t a bad thing. It’s when you want your partner to change, but your partner isn’t interested in those changes you’re suggesting, that the red flags should go up!

Waiting for some things to happen makes sense—education, career paths, family obligations, these types of things can definitely take priority over a relationship if the circumstances surrounding these changes warrant it. But if your partner (or you!) is using these external events as “reasons” for not committing, then you’ll begin to notice a pattern when the external events keep changing or lengthening. Sometimes we need to give a deadline to a potential long-term partner—and while you need to be flexible just to accommodate real-world issues that might arise, if a partner can’t agree to a reasonable timeline for the relationship to kick it up to the next level, it might be better to end it completely, rather than leaving it in idle long term.

More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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