How do you know when you should break up your relationship?
It’s often a huge emotional decision that doesn’t have an easy answer, yet it’s something many of us with a history of relationships have grappled with at one time or another.
There’s no such thing as a perfect relationship, but if you’re currently in a healthy relationship, it’s unlikely you’ve even had the thought you want to end the relationship.
Breakups can occur for a range of reasons but not always because of current issues. Sometimes it’s because there’s been so much hurt and betrayal in the relationship history that the couple has gone past the point of no return by the time they enter couples therapy.
In fact, alarming research by relationship expert John Gottman shows the average couple waits 6 years from the start of a problem before seeking professional help (and many couples never seek help to begin with.)
Many people think that relationship counselling only helps couples stay together. But in my 20 years of working with relationship problems, I’ve also helped my fair share of couples separate and divorce in a healthy way.
One of the sad reasons for this terrible statistic is there is still a stigma associated with reaching out for help and accessing professional therapy services when your relationship is in trouble. I have seen this stigma reduce somewhat over the years of my professional life, but we still have some way to go.
Why do relationships break up?
Dealing with differences in your relationship is a normal thing. Two people in a relationship will often have different tastes, which may cause conflict in the long run, but it’s unlikely a reason to call it quits.
You may each want different things, such as wanting your partner to make some minor behavioural changes like being tidier around the house, but that’s unlikely to be a reason to walk away.
But if you’re expecting your partner to drastically change, such as expecting a big shift in their personality or their beliefs, this may be unrealistic and unreasonable.
There are many reasons why relationships end. Sometimes the reasons are clear cut and other times they aren’t.
Some common reasons you may part ways include:
- you feel you’re in a one-sided relationship because your partner doesn’t want to work things out
- you’re constantly giving to your partner but you feel your emotional needs are not met (or vice versa)
- in your own life, you feel stuck or feel bored, so you don’t want to spend time with your partner
- you almost always start attacking your partner when you try to bring up certain things to resolve conflict and understand each other’s perspective
- the frequency of your sex life in your long-term relationship has declined, along with sexual satisfaction
- you’re constantly doubting your love and commitment
- you’re always thinking about a different path and whether your partner is the right person for your romantic and social life
And of course, any sort of abuse in your relationship is a much bigger issue and a clear red flag that the relationship is toxic. So in this case, leaving the relationship may be one of the best ways to deal with an abusive relationship.
Sex and relationship therapist Esther Perel says there are 4 core reasons you might break up with someone:
It’s normal for all relationships to go through a rough patch or for things to feel a bit stale from time to time. This is a part of any healthy relationship. But indifference is something much more serious – a feeling like you don’t care about your partner or her values. When one person (or both partners) feel little care for the other, it’s like trying to sail a leaking ship. No matter what you do, you keep sinking to the bottom.
- The solution: All loving relationships require the hard work of emotional nurturance to survive. If you’ve been feeling indifference, look deeply inside yourself to determine what’s leading you to feel that way. Have you shut yourself down? Are you responding to feeling hurt? Once you understand what’s behind your indifference, have a conversation and share about the real conflict that’s impacting your emotional connection with your partner. Remember, people change and it’s a lot easier to start by looking at what you can change instead of focusing on getting your partner to change.
Neglect often occurs when everything else in life gets prioritised other than your relationship and you no longer feel valued or important to your partner. It only takes one person in a relationship to neglect the other and it’s a clear sign that you’re in serious relationship trouble.
- The solution: The first step is at least one partner needs to invest in the relationship in a healthy way. And on the other hand, this often leads to your partner responding in a positive way. Break the Netflix routine. Date nights, prioritising time alone without digital devices, weekend trips, rock climbing, and sharing new hobbies are ways you can demonstrate to your partner that you want to be on the same page and are a good sign that you care deeply about the relationship.
Contempt is the degradation of your relationship where one person is talking down to their partner with superiority or disgust. When you feel contempt, you may even wonder if you even like your partner anymore. Contempt is a deeply destructive pattern of relating in relationships and a big problem for the longevity of your relationship.
- The solution: Even when you’re upset with your partner, it’s important to leave personal insults out of the conversation. If you feel contempt towards your partner, start searching for the deeper reason that has led to you feeling contempt. Check if you’re feeling hurt that has not been expressed and understood by your partner. If that’s the case, take the time to share your feelings in an adult and responsible way.
When Esther says violence she is referring to micro-aggressions, not an abusive relationship where your safety is at risk. Violence often shows up through taking loved ones for granted and expecting they will accept bad treatment because they are ‘family.’
- The solution: Start paying attention to the way you verbally and non-verbally communicate with your partner. Bring gentleness and softness to the way you engage with your partner. Also, stop thinking that your partner is there to meet all your needs. Look for areas where you’re taking your partner for granted and focus on increasing your fondness and admiration for your partner.
Questions to ask yourself before breaking up
Before you make the decision to break up, consider asking and sitting with the answers to these questions:
- Where do I see myself one year from now?
- Is my partner in my vision for my future?
- If I was with someone else, how would this new person be different? And is this new partner realistic or fantasy?
- What issues or baggage am I bringing to this relationship?
- What do I need to change to become a better partner?
Listen to Clinton speak on ABC Radio about how to know if it’s time to break up
I recently spoke on ABC Radio about how to know if it’s time to break up. It was an interesting conversation where we had listeners call in and share their experiences of breaking up, as well as ask me questions on this topic.
Have a listen to my interview below, or you can read the transcript below the audio player.
Click the play button below to listen to Clinton Power on ABC Radio speaking about how to know if you should break up your relationship.
Transcript of Clinton’s ABC Radio interview
Nat Tencic Hey, I’m Nat Tencic.
We know that relationship advice is full of messages like it’s not always gonna be easy and you gotta work at it. But how are you meant to know when you’re better off just walking away? How did you know when it was time to end a relationship?
And I want to talk a little bit more about this with some experts to break down exactly how you know and how you can recognise these feelings. I’m joined on The Hookup by a psychologist Gemma and Clinton Power, both of you, welcome to The Hook Up.
Clinton Power Thanks. Good to be here.
Nat Tencic Yeah, it’s always a pleasure to have you guys.
We got a text in here from Emily. She says this speaks to me on such a personal level. I broke up with my serious partner after watching that Daniel Sloss stand up special I mentioned earlier. The one that’s broken up a whole sea of couples. And she says that it became so clear that I was more into the idea of us being together than us actually being together. So I just couldn’t do that to him anymore.
Nat Tencic Clinton why do we have a tendency to dwell on the past and how does that disconnect start to happen with the person we’re with in the present?
Clinton Power I think that really comes down to physiology, Nat. You’ve probably heard of the negativity bias in the brain; that the brain is Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experiences.
So, the dilemma is when we get hurt in the past, when we experience pain we remember that and when it happens with someone we love it can be a challenge to get over it because we’re kind of drawn, even just on that neurological level, we’re drawn back to painful experiences and sometimes we keep reliving them over and over again unless you really repair that well as a couple. It can be hard to move forward.
Nat Tencic Clinton, what are some of the other warning signs that a relationship is maybe starting to peter out.
Look I think there are a lot of warning signs. If you’re noticing your mental health is deteriorating that can be quite an obvious warning sign. If you’re feeling depressed and moody if you’re feeling anxious all the time and it’s directly related to your partner and what’s going on in your relationship that can be a warning sign that something is not healthy in your relationship that you need to have a look at.
I’m stating the obvious here but if there’s any kind of abuse whether that’s ongoing verbal abuse, psychological abuse, emotional, physical or sexual, they’re some of the most extreme and serious warning signs to watch out for in a relationship that it may not be a good relationship for you and potentially you need to leave.
Nat Tencic Oh well absolutely. In that case in particular if something is dysfunctional and it’s not working that’s really important. And if that’s kind of bringing up to you. Anything for you as well. We’ll get into it in a moment here on the hook up on triple j but Lifeline is also there 13 11 14.
I’m speaking with psychologists Gemma and Clinton Power about how to know when you should end a relationship and when it’s time to call it. And obviously, I think feelings are a really hard thing to go on but they’re kind of all you have to go on. But at what point do you do you need to be sceptical of your feelings? How do you approach and treat some of your more extreme kind of vibes on things?
Clinton Power All couples have ups and downs good days bad days. Every couple has a conflict. If you’re not having conflict sometimes I worry about those couples more than the ones that are fighting. But the important thing is what are you doing with that. Like are you making movements to repair to get things back on track to make up with each other?
We know the strongest couples do experience conflict, they do have disagreements and they’ll have tough times but they have intentions to make up get things back on track relatively quickly. And that’s just a part of all healthy relationships.
But if those kinds of feelings and experiences are going on for long periods of time and you’re not starting that repair process or there’s just ongoing distress there can be a serious sign that the relationship is not healthy for you.
Nat Tencic Nat Tencic is my name and we’re talking about how you know when it’s time to break up. Sometimes timing’s really difficult sometimes just like actually working out what your feelings are really difficult and sometimes there’s just so much more in the mix that you’ll consider to stay with somebody.
I’m with psychologist Gemma and psychologist Clinton Power taking your questions tonight. Got a question for you here guys. This one says when I was with my girlfriend I was bored and I just didn’t feel much towards her. But then once we go into a break or decide to break up I want to be together again. I want her back. Am I just scared of not having her or do I just need to push through those feelings instead of all those feelings of missing her?
Clinton Power It’s so hard to know isn’t it? I mean it could be a number of things whether it’s this guy is idealising his partner so when he’s away and it’s very easy to do that. And we’ve talked about this in long-distance relationships you start to only think about the best qualities of your partner and even amplify them in some ways. And that can happen when you’re apart and then you start to long and yearn for the person. And then, as he says, if he spends time with her then he gets bored. Well if that’s happening consistently, that’s a pretty strange feeling to have with someone you supposedly care about.
Nat Tencic Absolutely. There’s a question here that says has going on a break ever worked to make the relationship better? Or is it just a stepping stone to an actual breakup?
Well, I guess it’s maybe a little bit of what Helen’s feeling there or the kind of situation she might see as something to help her feeling a wandering. Do relationship breaks actually work, Clinton?
Clinton Power No that’s a great question. I’m in two minds about this. I hear people say this to me all the time.
I think that sometimes a temporary separation can work but it needs to be time-limited. You have to have really clear boundaries and agreements about how is it going to work and what is the intention of the temporary temporary separation.
Are we going to be dating? Are we going to be working on our relationship while we’re apart? If this is a temporary separation to see other people, I don’t see those ones working very well. And sometimes a temporary separation is actually a soft breakup. It’s just a way to go, “I’m just gonna ease myself out of this relationship in a gentle way and hopefully none of our feelings will get hurt.”
Nat Tencic It’s yeah it seems like kind of one of those things that you should really you know maybe take it for what it is. But breaking up is hard. And you know we’ve talked about a few of the reasons why breaking up Is hard and that’s why you might not let yourself know that it’s time to break up. Whether those things, as we were sort of talking a little bit about before, the fear of the unknown or the fear of being by yourself. It could be also the fear of hurting that person’s feelings. How do you kind of push past that Clinton?
Clinton Power Look I absolutely agree with you that breaking up is hard to do. I know I know there’s a song called that but it’s very true because it is about endings. It’s about farewells and goodbyes and frankly, most people are very uncomfortable with that. People find saying goodbye difficult.
And of course when there’s been love, deep affection and love, and you’ve shared history and particularly if you’ve been together many, many years, it’s a big loss. You’re saying goodbye to a lot.
And people handle it in different ways. You know some people put it on a ‘post it’ note. Some people send a text message and those people were generally trying to avoid the pain and the hurt. And then you’ve got the other end of the spectrum. If you think back to Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin all those years ago and doing the ‘Conscious Uncoupling,’ they had a whole kind of therapy process around saying goodbye in a very authentic apparently – I wasn’t there – but very authentic and real way where they just honoured the past. And this is a great way of thinking about how you can end a relationship. That you can do with integrity, face-to-face, eye-to-eye and also celebrate the positive aspects of the relationship that even though the relationship is ending it doesn’t mean it was a failure.
Nat Tencic Yeah, do a bit of a “thank you, next” and be so grateful for your ex.
That’s the hook-up on triple j at 10. Nat Tencic with you. Dominique in Cairns, what’s your question for Clinton?
Dominque So my question is I’m in a long-distance relationship. I’ve been engaged with the person for about two years and he’s been unfaithful to me for quite some time but he still wants to continue the relationship and wants me to move back over to Canada. What do you feel about that?
You know it’s been great for that period of time and we both haven’t been you know perfect people their relationship. I guess it’s just me trying to figure out whether I should you know they move overseas and leave my friends and family here and sacrifice. I’m compromising a lot more than what he would be doing.
Clinton Power There’s a there’s a lot at stake. Have you considered doing couples therapy with your partner – with your fiancee?
Dominque I’m here in Canada and I’m in Australia.
Clinton Power Yes, when when you reunite. You see the thing about infidelity is it has a huge impact on relationships. And from my experience, if you want to want the relationship to thrive it can be really challenging to get through that on your own without professional help. Depending of course on what type of infidelity it was. But you know a lot of couples don’t survive infidelity when they try to get through it on their own. So it might be something I want to consider.
Nat Tencic Dominque, I hope that helps a little bit. Thanks for the call.
Dominque Thank you so much.
Nat Tencic A lot of conversation tonight has centred around this desire not to be selfish. That there’s guilt about looking out for yourself and your feelings and that we’re told, “Well you know what. It’s not nice to them. You got to stick it out.”.
Like we did have somebody text in here kind of on this point that says, “one thing I always see people overlooking is whether or not they’re making their partner happy because it’s one thing to question whether or not they make you happy but are you giving all and striving to be a positive impact in their life?”.
Where does this come from that we don’t actually want to look after or look out for ourselves or we find it quite difficult or feel guilty about actually looking out for our own needs?
Clinton Power I’m not sure where it comes from Nat but I think it’s a universal human dilemma that I hear there is this the dilemma of “how can I be me and be with you?” And I think we all experience it in relationships and then part of that is how can I be myself and be independent and have my own interests and sometimes it’s about wanting to be separate and have freedom and also be with you and know that at times when you know we want to be close we want to be intimate. There’s that pull together and I know a lot of couples struggle on that spectrum of moving between the pull to be very close and intimate and the need for autonomy and separateness. I don’t think there’s any easy answer for it.
Nat Tencic It’s a real hard balance to strike. But you’ve got to. That’s a thing like you do still have to kind of lookout for your mental health. You’re the one who has to live with you. You know what I mean? That’s kind of what I came to in this whole thing. Nick has called in and you and your partner ended things and you tried. You tried the working option. How did that work out for you?
Nic Really, really badly. So we were together for about 18 months and I feel like he sort of stopped putting in effort after maybe ten months, like that honeymoon period sort of ended and I felt like he’d stop putting in effort. So I was sort of compensating for him as well as just keeping up my end of the bargain. And it felt like I was fighting like a losing battle pretty much. And we actually ended up going overseas together and we had a really great time. And I thought, “Great. This is fixed, this is done. All good.” And then just under a month after we got back he decided to call a break. We were on a break for three months which I really shouldn’t have committed to. And then he ended up breaking up with me.
Nat Tencic Yeah. Yeah. Clinton, you wanna weigh in on that?
Clinton Power Yeah tough. That sounds like, as I was mentioning before, the soft breakup. And I think just in terms of general themes of some of your callers, one of the most important things when you start to have some of these feelings and even if you know that you’re contemplating the possibility of breaking up is that it’s really essential to talk to your partner about this. And it can be a tough conversation but that’s the starting point – the first place you want to go because that’s – even with those tough conversations you never know where it’s going to go. You know you never know without talking to your partner what’s possible and can the two of you negotiate or work something out that actually works for both of you. Even when it appears sometimes that it can’t or even maybe it looks like a dealbreaker from the outside.
Nat Tencic So is it worth getting back together and trying to do the work if those feelings still linger or you know like what do you think?
Nic That’s like my main question.
Nat Tencic Yeah. Clinton, you want to weigh in on this?
Clinton Power It is an interesting dilemma. It’s not until you have a complete break from someone – a complete separation – where you can really test the reality of what is it like not to have this person in my life.
And it sounds like you are in a bit of limbo because you’re not together but you’re also in contact. So it is a tricky one. I don’t have a simple answer for you but you know you can try one or the other. You either have a complete break with no contact or you spend more time together and you can use that as an experiment and just see what is it like. What do you notice about how you feel we know how you feel about yourself and the two of you together? What was that like? And then at least you have more data to kind of make a decision.
Nic So true.
Nat Tencic Definitely worth exploring. Hey, thanks so much for the call. Thank you so much.
Nat Tencic It’s the hook up on triple j and I’m so sorry we didn’t get to all your calls and texts tonight and talking about how to break up but there’s been so much wisdom coming through on the text line I really appreciate you being involved in the conversation tonight. Thanks heaps to Gemma and Clinton Power psychologists joining me on our panel tonight. Thanks so much for being here guys.
Have a listen to Esther speak about breaking up in the short videos below.
If you’ve noticed some of these issues in your own relationship, ultimately, it’s up to you if you decide to break up or not. No one can tell you what to do or what decision to make.
If you’re stuck with which direction to go in, a professional and qualified relationship therapist can help you clarify your situation so you can make a clear and confident decision about your future.
Do you need relationship help?
If you’re considering online relationship counselling services, online therapist Clinton Power has extensive experience helping couples create better relationships. Clinton uses evidence-based interventions based on the science of healthy relationships in his work with his clients.
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.