Hi Page, how do you know it’s time to end a relationship? I know relationships take work, but sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead horse.
Great question! This was a tricky distinction for me to master. For the longest time, I was really reluctant to break up with people (even when it made sense to) because I’d internalized the following scripts surrounding breakups:
- Breakups are bad in and of themselves.
- We should avoid them at all costs.
- In every breakup, there’s a good person and a bad person.
- There must be a winner and loser in the court of public opinion.
My old implicit metric for figuring out when it was time to break up wasn’t so great. It went a little something like this: “Has this person harmed me enough that I feel justified in harming them back by leaving them?”
A terrible system, really.
I’ve come to realize not only are these beliefs overly simplistic and incredibly unhelpful, they are completely out of touch with how compatibility actually works. I now know that:
- People’s situations change.
- People’s feelings change.
- Sometimes a connection feels vastly different in theory than it does in practice.
- People can grow and change in incompatible directions.
And with these new beliefs, it doesn’t make sense to go down with the ship anymore. Or to need the other person to essentially commit an act of war (i.e., flagrant abuse) before I can justify ending a relationship.
That said, I don’t want to go too far in the other direction. To jump ship at the first sign of trouble. Or to treat people like they are expendable experiments.
So I have had to come up with a new way to evaluate whether or not it’s time to end a relationship. Here’s what I look for.
1. The Juice Isn’t Worth the Squeeze
A lot of the good things in life take some effort (at least occasionally). Relationships are no exception from this. Sometimes they’re work (and often that work is really on us, on becoming the best version of ourselves). But if you’re putting in a ton of work and not getting a lot out of it, it can be a good opportunity to stop and consider: Is this relationship worth what I’m putting into it?
Now, let’s say you’re in a really rough spot. And you aren’t getting any gratification out of your relationship right now. Does that automatically mean you should leave? Not necessarily. When you’re considering if the positives outweigh the negatives, you shouldn’t be looking just at the present state of things. You also should factor in any positive history you have with that person. Rough patches happen, but has the relationship ever been good? For any significant length of time? If so, do you have a reasonable hope that it might be good again?
Sometimes you do have to put a lot of work into a relationship — but that effort should be somewhat offset by gratification and positive benefits of having the relationship.
Or, as the analogy goes, the juice should be worth the squeeze.
And if it’s not, if it’s always been difficult and not bringing you joy, it’s worth considering whether you should be in that relationship at all.
2. Your Partner Doesn’t Think What’s Making You Unhappy Is Even a Valid Issue
This one’s a killer. A lot of things can be worked on, but it’s nearly impossible to problem-solve with a person who thinks you don’t have any problems.
As I wrote in a previous piece:
“I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of this,” he says.
“I really want to work on fixing the problem,” I say.
“What problem?” he says. “You’re the only one who thinks it’s a problem.”
And as I stand there, aching from what he’s just said, it occurs to me that this might be the biggest problem of them all: That we disagree on whether there is one in the first place.
Everyone knows that successful relationships take work. But what happens if the other person refuses to do it? Or even acknowledge that there’s work to be done?
I’ve always found this to be the hardest.
Behavioral change can be hard even under ideal circumstances. Even if a person wants to change, it can take time and attention to relearn and rework the automatic patterns we’ve fallen into.
And if the other person doesn’t want to change those behaviors? If they don’t think they’re really an issue — even after repeated accountability talks and/or talk therapy with a professional counselor? Then forget about it. It’s not changing.
At that point, you basically have two realistic options:
- Accept that what’s making you unhappy will always be in your life and try to learn to live with that.
- Leave the relationship.
3. Your Partner Only Seems to Care About What You Want If They Think You’re About to Leave
Occasionally I’ve found (in my own romantic life and in working with clients) that partners who ignore several requests to address the issues will offer to change during the breakup talk. Long ago and far away, I did accept such an eleventh hour offer as the partner in question seemed quite sincere and newly willing to change. I soon came to regret it, however. As soon as they perceived our relationship to no longer be in critical jeopardy, they reverted back to their old ways.
Perhaps if I’d repeated the process, issued some sort of stern ultimatum, they would have made an effort again for a short while. However, I realized that I didn’t want to be in a relationship like that, where I had to threaten to leave to be listened to.
Now, there are folks who use ultimatum as a relationship management tool this way. But I’ve noticed it’s not terribly effective long term. It turns into a The Boy Who Cried Wolf situation. Their partners learn that the threats to leave are hollow and stop heeding them altogether. And because ultimatum has been their main tool for a while, when this happens, they’re at a loss.
Ultimatums are terrible, for the person issuing them and the person receiving them. I advise avoiding them whenever possible.
In a healthy relationship, your partner should care about what you want all of the time. Not just when they think you’re about to leave.
4. You Conflict with Your Partner on Something Very Important to You and It Doesn’t Seem Like That’s Ever Going to Change
I get a fair number of letters from readers seeking advice because they want to do something that their partner doesn’t (or vice versa). The advice that I’m about to give applies to just about any conflict of desires, but I’ll use the example I get most often (because of the nature of my work): When a person wants to have an open relationship but their partner is strongly opposed to it.
What you decide to do here really depends on how important being in an open relationship is to you. If it’s a “well, this would be nice” priority level, then you can probably live just fine without it and it might not be worth breaking up a long-term relationship over.
There are plenty of people who have this kind of relationship with consensual non-monogamy (a broader category that includes open relationships, swinging, polyamory, and other styles), for whom it can be fun and they’re curious about but it isn’t a core part of their identity or something they’re aching to get into.
It’s like any relationship incompatibility, really. For some people, differing on whether they want kids is a big deal. For other people, they’re more flexible on the issue and are happy to compromise on this matter in a relationship that fulfills them. Or perhaps they’re willing (or unwilling) to compromise on whether they live in the country or the city.
That said, it’s easy to overestimate our partner’s level of resistance to something out of fear. And part of knowing that something is unlikely to change is having an accurate picture of your partner’s actual resistance (not the one that your fear imagines).
It can be scary to have these kinds of conversations, but it’s necessary. When it comes to open relationships in particular, people often find even bringing up the possibility extremely daunting. Here are two articles that should help with that. The first specifically focuses on opening up, the second addresses having vulnerable conversations in a more general sense:
- Bustle: How to Talk to Your Partner About Having an Open Relationship, According to Experts (full disclosure: I’m one of the experts quoted in this article)
- Poly Land: How to Fail at Communication Before You Say a Single Word (on putting yourself out there in a way that isn’t pushy, arguably the most important part of having such a talk)
I would also recommend Crucial Conversations as an excellent framework for having difficult conversations of all kinds. Here’s a decent summary of the framework, but I really do recommend the book, which I reread myself periodically as a refresher.
But as I say in the second article listed above, there are no hacks. No shortcuts. No magic words. There’s no way to stack the deck to ensure your desired outcome. The most valuable communication involves risk.
And you may find once you’ve put yourself out there that you and your partner don’t see eye to eye on something that’s of vital importance to you. If it’s important enough that you can’t live without it, it might be time to end the relationship.