Over the course of your love life, you’re going to have to deal with a breakup. Sometimes you’ll see the breakup coming a mile away like an oncoming train and you’ll realize that there’s no getting around it. It’s going to happen and the only thing left to do is to brace yourself and try to figure out how to make it not suck as much.
But then there are the breakups that sneak up on you and hit you when you’re not looking. There’s nothing that delivers a nut-kick to your soul like a breakup that seems to come out of the clear blue sky. But while it may hit you out of the blue, breakups rarely happen in a vacuum. If you want to pull your relationship back from the brink, you want to keep an eye out for these warning signs that you’re headed to a breakup.
You Fight A Lot. Like, a lot.
Look, fights are going happen. If you’re dating another person, there’s going to be conflict. If you have two (or more) people, there’s going to be an inevitable clash of opinions, desires and interests. The only way you’re not going to have a fight with your significant other is if they’re an inanimate object.
But there are fights and there are fights. There are times when you’re just two passionate people whose primary mode of communication is to explode like Vesuvius and then wrap around each other like lovesick octopuses dressed like Japanese schoolgirls. The fights flare up like swamp gas and then they’re forgotten like a fart in a windstorm. Other times there are legitimate issues within a relationship that need to be resolved. And then there are times when the two of you are just coasting from conflict to conflict, where those moments of peace are really just the calm before next storm. Anything could set off the next explosion, no matter how banal; one minute you’re trying to figure out what to watch on Netflix and the next you’re screaming at each other about the thing that one of you said three months ago. You’re pissed at them, they’re pissed at you and it seems like everybody’s just looking for more reasons to be upset at everyone else.
How Do You Pull This Back from A Breakup?
You have to break the cycle. This can be shockingly hard to do; after all, when you’ve hit a pattern of fight after fight, you become far more invested in proving that you were the one who was in the right all along. You’ve been saving up slights and insults to whip out at a moment’s notice like the world’s bitterest game of Uno.
But if you want to make this relationship work – assuming it can be saved – one of you has to be the first to stop fighting, and start listening. There’s a natural tendency towards defensiveness and trying to protect your ego, because it’s really damn hard to let things go, especially if it means accepting that maybe you were the asshole. But if you want to fix things, then you need to be willing to be the first to put up your sword as a gesture of good faith.
Swallow your pride, de-escalate and try to assess what the real issue is instead of one-upping each other in moral indignation.
But while we’re talking about fights…
You Keep Having The Same Argument Over and Over Again
Sometimes it’s not the frequency of the fights that’s the problem. Sometimes it’s what you’re fighting about.
One of the surest signs that you’re heading towards a breakup is when the same issue comes up over and over and over. It’s like you’re stuck in the world’s shittiest time loop; the circumstances may change but you’re always ending up in the same place over and over again, and once you think it’s over, it comes up again.
Sometimes it comes up as a suggestion. Other times it’s a discussion. Still other times, it’s a knock down, drag out, “why won’t you listen to me already?” fight. The lyrics may change, but the song is the same and you know every beat and measure by heart. Part of what makes this particular breakup sign insidious is how often the inciting incident may not seem that much of a big deal; as a result, the breakup ends up taking you by surprise. But no matter how unimportant it may seem to you, the more often this issue comes up, the closer and closer you come to watching your relationship fall apart.
How Do You Pull This Back from A Breakup?
The fact that the issue keeps coming up is because it’s never been resolved. Duh. The thing you need to confront is why it’s never been resolved. Maybe you think it’s something stupid and you brush it off. Maybe you think your partner’s being unreasonable or seemingly never satisfied. Or maybe you’re the sort of person who will just say whatever it takes to make them drop the subject.
Well guess what? No amount of passive-aggressiveness coating is going to turn this particular grit into a pearl, which means that the only way this breakup can be avoided is to face the issue head on. You’re going to have to sit down and actually hash things out… and the first step is going to be making sure you actually understand what your partner’s asking for. After all, if it’s the classic issue of “I want you to want to do the dishes”, then the issue isn’t the dishes, it’s that you’re not contributing to the upkeep of the relationship or appreciating what your partner does for you. This is one of those times when real communication is going to make a difference; if you’re just assuming that you understand, then odds are good that you may be missing the problem for the symptom.
And while you’re at it, you’re going to have to cultivate some self-awareness – is this a case of your partner legitimately being unreasonable, or do you just not want to do it? Do you mean well and forget to start making changes you’ve promised – in which case you need to start building a system to make sure you remember – or do you just “forget”?
Just as importantly, you have to ask yourself: is this really the hill you want to die on? Yeah, it’s nice to have principles, but they aren’t going to keep you warm at night if they drive your girlfriend off.
You’re Not Having Fun
This issue trips people up, especially if they don’t have much relationship experience. No relationship, no matter how passionate or deep, is going to be sunshine and rainbows and excitement 24/7 for eternity. Once you leave the honeymoon period and that new relationship energy wears off, you’re going to stabilize. Those emotional highs that set your heart racing aren’t going to come as often as they used to. You’re not going to think your partner’s the most fascinating person ever to walk the Earth. This is normal and every couple goes through this.
But there’s a line between the natural emotional leveling out that comes as a relationship matures – or the need to put active effort into maintaining the relationship – and being bored. Boredom is the death of desire, predictability the antithesis of excitement. Worse, once boredom has set in, it’s incredibly hard to shake. They call it “being in a rut” for a reason – you’re stuck in a deep, well-worn groove that’s easy to fall into and difficult to get out of.
How Do You Pull This Back from A Breakup?
The mistake people make at this stage is that they put the effort into the wrong things. They plan date nights or go into counseling or try to be more romantic. Except the problem isn’t (necessarily) a lack of romance, it’s familiarity. One of the reasons why new relationships are so intoxicating is because everything is new and novelty is exciting. Your partner’s a stranger with hidden depths you’ve never explored and surprises around every corner. As you become more familiar and intimate, there’s less excitement because there’s not as much novelty or surprise to be found.
So when you’re in a long-term relationship, you need to make more excitement. And since our brains are actually bad at understanding why we feel the way we do, we can generate that excitement by doing things that stimulate us instead of being romantic. When we think of romance, we tend to think of “pleasant” things like a candlelit dinner. The problem is that these rarely increase our heart-rates or engage our central nervous system in a meaningful way. Things that get arouse our pulmonary system, on the other hand tend to arouse other things too – and we tend to attribute that arousal to the people we’re with, rather than the activities. So if you’re bored in a relationship, start seeking out things that get you both excited. Spend date nights dancing, have romantic walks or do things that scare or challenge you – these help stimulate the same physical sensations we feel when we’re first falling in love.
Speaking of boredom…
You’re Not Having Sex Any More (And You’re Not Enjoying The Sex You Have)
The number one sign that a breakup is in your future is that the sex sucks… if you’re having it at all.
Sexual satisfaction and sexual compatibility are key components of a lasting and happy relationship. Sex, after all, is one of the key ways we share intimacy, display affection and cement the emotional bonds that bring us together and keep us together. When we’re not satisfied – either because we’re not having enough (or any) sex or because the sex is boring, unenjoyable or unpleasant – then that dissatisfaction seeps into other aspects of our relationship as well. We start to resent our partners for not meeting our needs or for subjecting us to something that we dislike. Other forms of intimacy start to dwindle and fall away, increasing that sense of distance between us.
And of course, we may end up cheating on our partners and turning a potential breakup into an inevitability instead.
Once the sex goes, the relationship soon follows… unless you can pull it back out of the downward spiral.
How Do You Pull This Back from A Breakup?
It all comes down to why the sex is bad or non-existent.
One of the most common reasons why sex fades in a relationship is because people get bored. Just as it’s possible to fall into a rut in your day to day relationships, it’s possible to fall into a rut, sexually. Part of the issue is, shockingly, how we tend to view sex in committed relationships – especially marriage – versus sex with relative strangers. We’re taught over and over again that kinky, crazy sexual adventures are for the young and uncommitted; once we’re “in love”, married or gasp old1 it’s time to put it all away and go back to basic vanilla sex. Even 50 Shades of Grey tells people that sexual adventure is great at first, but the goal should be to put it all behind you and just enjoy basic missionary instead. Doubly so if you have kids; you don’t put the mother of your children in a bondage harness and suspend her from the ceiling, for Christ’s sake!
The other reason that sex tends to fade is that we’re not having the sex we enjoy or that we’re not enjoying the sex we’re having… but at the same time, it’s incredibly hard to tell your partner that. No matter how well intentioned or carefully phrased, hearing that someone doesn’t like the sex you’re having is a major blow to the ego – especially if it’s been going on for quite some time.
The key to fixing all of this? It’s two-fold. The first is: communication, communication, communication. It’s one thing to try to inject novelty into the bedroom by, say, bringing a soft rope and a silk blindfold, but if the problem isn’t that you’re bored but that you don’t like the sex you’re having, nothing’s going to get better. If you’re having sex with someone, you need to be able comfortable talking about sex with them – both to advocate for your pleasure but also to help fulfill theirs. If you can’t talk to your partner about what you want and don’t want, and if your partner can’t do the same with you, there’s no room to change and improve.
The other part that it takes to fix a flagging sexual relationship? Embracing the concept of being what sex advice columnist Dan Savage calls GGG: being Good (in bed), Giving (as a lover) and Game (for trying new things for your partner within reason). That third G is often what trips partners up. Many people have kinks or interests that they may be hesitant to bring up for fear of being rejected by their partner. Similarly, if you’re not necessarily into something that your partner is, it’s going to be much harder to want to fulfill that desire or kink; you may well feel bothered by the fact that you were asked to do this. As a result: nobody’s happy. One partner’s needs are going unfulfilled, with a bonus serving of rejection and shame while the other is feeling weirded out by their partner’s desires.
But there’s actual science to back up the benefit of being GGG. Studies have found that couples who have greater sexual communal (that is, a willingness to stretch to meet their partners needs) strength have both greater sexual satisfaction in general but also greater sexual desire over time. The benefits to the relationship goes beyond just someone’s very particular itch being scratched; that feeling of being appreciated by one’s partner and that they’re willing to work to meet your needs (and vice versa) is validating. And those benefits go both ways – being willing to try things you may not necessarily be interested makes you feel better as well.
It’s that willingness to make the effort that’s the most important. It’s one thing to see that you’re headed towards a breakup. But if you want to save your relationship, you have to do more than recognize the warning signs – you have to put in the work to change it’s course.
- For suitably arbitrary definitions of “old” [↩]