Expert Insights

How Do I Know It’s Time to Break Up?

Highlights

  • Breaking up is a personal decision. No one knows what’s best for you better than you do.
  • An imbalance of effort being put into the relationship can be a sign it’s time to call it quits.
  • Your fantasies about the future can highlight what you want out of life. Be honest with yourself, is your partner present in your daydreams?

Thinking about ending a relationship can be a lonely time. You may feel a million miles away from your partner and stuck asking yourself questions like “What do I want?”, “Am I happy?”, “What does a good enough relationship even look like?”, and “How do I know it’s time to break up?”

You are the only person who knows if breaking up is the right decision, which is why it can be such a hard choice to make. The following are some prompts to help guide your reflection and decision-making. 

Are you both putting in work? 

Trying to make a relationship work on your own is like trying to ride a seesaw while one person takes a nap.

Ask yourself: when you go through difficult times in your relationship, do you feel that both you and your partner are invested in the process of making things better?

Are you both willing to take time to build awareness of and take accountability for your own unhelpful relationship behaviors, whether it be through therapy, meditation, reading, journaling, or other forms of discovery?

Or is there a constant sense of imbalance of effort? This could mean you’re the one to initiate all of the difficult conversations, therapy appointments, or planning of dates. It could also be that your partner is spinning their wheels trying to change things while you feel checked out or lack the energy or motivation to step in.

Are you emotionally available to one another?

Consider how emotionally safe and supported you feel when you’re together. When one of you has a rough day, can you lean on the other? Do you generally feel like you can be open, honest, and vulnerable together? Ideally, the times of connection should outweigh the moments when you feel disconnected. 

It’s worth considering breaking up if either of you spends a significant amount of time feeling disengaged, disappointed, or on hyper-alert for signs of a threat to the relationship. However, these behaviors can result from past relational trauma, and, often, therapy can help. 

These negative feelings may also be a sign that you and your partner have incompatible connection styles. If one of you longs for a deep connection and the other finds this need exhausting and overwhelming, you will both always feel like you aren’t getting what you need. Yes, you absolutely can work on this together, but you may find that you’d prefer a match that fits more seamlessly.

Are you being controlled or abused? 

Notice how you feel when you’re with your partner. Does it feel like you can never get anything right? Do you feel you have no say in the relationship or does what you want seem not to matter? Do you find yourself questioning your sense of reality? Do you feel like a different person or that you’re never good enough? Do you feel like you have to walk on eggshells around them?

If any of these feelings are present, it’s possible your partner is exerting abusive or controlling behavior. Abuse of any kind—whether physical, mental, emotional, or sexual—should be taken seriously.

If abuse is present in your relationship and you suspect you’re at risk of violence if you leave, it’s important to seek out extra support. 

If you’re experiencing abuse or think you may be in danger from an intimate partner, please call the 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline for free, confidential assistance in the United States. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text “START” to 88788.

Are your non-negotiable needs being met?

No relationship will ever be perfect. It can be useful to figure out your “nice to have” relationship wants and your non-negotiable needs. 

How can you tell the difference between a want or need? Ask yourself: “If I don’t have this in my relationship, will I eventually become resentful, depressed, or withdrawn?”

It can be helpful to jot these needs down. Start by writing down everything that’s important for you to feel loved and fulfilled through a relationship. Then start to sort this list into “needs” and “wants.” This exercise can help you make sense of your feelings and help identify whether your relationship frustrations are something you can continue to handle.

Do you see a future together?

When you picture your ideal life, what do you see? Let your imagination run wild. 

Do you also know what your partner wants? 

Now for the hard part. Can you truthfully imagine your dreams fitting together? 

Think about the big things like:

  • where you want to live
  • your ideal career
  • whether or not you want kids
  • whether marriage is in your plans

When it all boils down, what do you value most? 

Do your visions of life fit together? Maybe they once did, but over time your paths have diverged. This is a normal, painful part of relationships. Sometimes we can expand and stretch our dreams to include each other. Our partners may even influence us in beautiful ways. But occasionally, partners hit a fork in the road, and it becomes difficult to merge the paths back together.

This is your life. If you and your partner are on two different planets, it’s worth thinking hard about whether you’re willing to compromise on the things that matter most to you.

Are you daydreaming about being single?

Do you find yourself frequently searching for articles like this? Or are you suddenly fascinated with peoples’ experiences of going through breakups? Are you longing for a life of freedom and adventure? It’s possible you’re mentally preparing yourself for the end. 

If you find yourself longing for a fantasy more than the reality you’re living in, it may be a sign you want your relationship to end. 

When should you keep a relationship?

All relationships go through challenging moments. During these periods, it’s natural to wonder if the relationship should come to an end. 

But going through a rough patch doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, when you evolve as a couple, challenges are inevitable. A lot of incredible growth can happen in a relationship. While our deepest wounds can come from our relationships, so can our greatest moments of healing. 

However, for this to be the case, both people in the relationship need to be doing their own work. This work involves a commitment to building awareness of our relationship triggers and patterns and adapting as necessary. 

How to salvage a troubled relationship

Couples therapy is a non-judgmental space to build an understanding of and be held accountable for your unhelpful patterns. You will have a supportive presence to guide you and your partner towards improving intimacy. 

Even if you decide to call it quits after therapy, the work isn’t a wasted effort. The reason for this is that we often date similar people and repeat relationship patterns. The self-knowledge, emotional skills, and capacity for connection that you build in therapy will have a carryover effect on your next relationship.

The final word

If you’re finding yourself in a place of uncertainty and stress about whether or not to break up, my hope is for you to have compassion for yourself. Sometimes indecision can be the most difficult part of a breakup. 

Whatever happens, and whether or not you stay together, you will be alright. That doesn’t mean that you won’t experience incredibly painful emotions, but your body is capable of carrying you through the experience of these hard feelings.

The work you’re doing to build self-awareness and create conscious relationships will benefit you throughout your life. 

If you do decide to break up, it can be helpful to surround yourself with supportive people. You might also find my book on healing after a breakup to be a helpful resource.

Erin Davidson, MA, RCC, CST
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Erin Davidson (she/her) is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Certified Sex Therapist working in private practice in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a firm believer in the healing power of pleasure and being kinder to ourselves. Erin is the author of two books Break Through the Breakup and Thriving in Non-Monogamy. She is most proud of her new fluffball Marv who recently graduated top of his class in puppy preschool.