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4 Signs That Your Relationship May Be Over

... and one signal that it may not be.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

An acquaintance of mine recently surprised me with news that he was in the middle of getting divorced. When I voiced my surprise he said, "You know, it’s like that built-in timer on the turkey: When it pops up, you know it’s done.”

It was a great analogy, but also an intriguing idea. Most of us don’t have that pop-up timer within us or our relationships to let us know when we're "done." So how do you really know?

Here are four clues that a relationship could be over—and one reason it might not be:

1. No sex, or a steady decrease in affection.

You might have been in the three-times-a-week club or the once-in-three-months club. Either way, it's a bad sign when sex gets backburnered or decreases (due to headaches, busy schedules, working late, kid interruptions), or when everyday affection patterns (the wave of the hand goodbye or the kiss out the door) dissolve. This signifies disconnection. It may just be a temporary reaction to stress, but if it's been going on for some time, it could indicate a relationship decline. The descent may not be a straight line to the bottom. You both may make half-hearted attempts to reignite the connections—the motivation for an out-of-the-blue hookup at 6 am or 11 pm. But because of the general malaise in the relationship and the overall disconnect, it goes nowhere.

2. Communication is down.

Dinner conversations are about well, nothing, or a three-minute summary of work, or a total focus on the kids and whether they're using their forks correctly. After dinner is over, you both drift toward video games, getting the kids in bed, or Facebook. Time off is not much different: If you have kids, there’s a focus on all those weekend soccer games or going to the park. If not, it's back online, bringing work home, or mowing grass. This is the structure of parallel lives, avoiding conversation about elephants in the room (or, for that matter, conversation in general), side-stepping conversations of any substance or intimacy because of fear of arguing, being dismissed, or confirming that your worse fears are actually real. Everyone is awkward and walking on eggshells 24/7, and there are continuous “reasons” not to do things together.

3. Pet peeves are ramping up.

She's always scratching her nose, he belches at the table, the sponge is left soggy in the sink. And it all just spirals. You argue all the time about this small stuff, and occasionally bigger stuff, but you know the drill: Regardless of what you say or what the topic is, you know how this will end. At best, it goes nowhere; at worse, it isn’t pretty. An increased sensitivity to trivial stuff is your brain is trying to connect the dots between your emotions and external behaviors. You feel disconnected, maybe on the verge of leaving, and so, thanks to the power of cognitive dissonance, you need to bring your thoughts and feelings in line. So you stack up evidence to bolster your mental case about why you feel the way you do, why things aren’t working, why you should leave. Get enough stuff in place and all the dots connect. Hence the all-important wet sponge.

4. You're having fantasies of escape, and about your life after you do.

Maybe you're thinking about a new relationship, or life in a quiet apartment by yourself. It’s easy to get enveloped in these thoughts—sometimes they are escape outlets when you feel particularly trapped. But if such fantasies arise more and more frequently, and with greater detail, your subconscious may be sending you strong messages that it’s time to get out.

But wait…

All of that said, here’s the maybe: There’s an important opportunity here that you may not want to overlook. Big decision-making follows an arc from low-grade concern and specificity to ever-increasing concern and specificity. You probably know this from job searching: You apply to a company, you’re interested, but it’s only during the interview process and physically walking around the building and seeing your future cubby that you get a clear sense of how you really feel about the job. This is the same process the runaway bride or groom undergoes: It’s only when the wedding march starts playing that they realize in their gut that it’s time to split.

When you are dangling on the top of that arch—with the bags packed and ready to go —that other, competing voices may begin to take hold. It’s also a time when you can have this clarity to slow down and define how you really feel and what you are and are not willing to do.

Don’t automatically disregard these voices as cowardice or second thoughts. Consider the two sides of the argument and pay attention to which is stronger. If one part of you clearly says, yes, it’s time to leave, or to at least get some space and clear your head and see what happens next, go for it. If another part says, wait, there’s more to try, there are possibilities for change, pay attention. Don’t rush it: You may need a second or third mental pass to see what sticks. But see if there is a message to consider.

These are never easy decisions or even "right" ones. Regardless of what action you take, there are likely to be days when you'll wish you'd stayed and tried, and others when you’re grateful that you took the leap. When emotions, events, and details overwhelm you, you don’t want to be 100% reactive. Step back, look at what's needed to break the dysfunctional pattern, and assess the big picture. Then step up, be decisive, and realize that you are always free to change your mind.

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