Is there anything quite as frustrating watching a friend in a relationship that’s clearly in free-fall? You know damn good and well that he or she needs to detach themselves from the emotional barnacle that is their significant other, but for whatever reason they’re absolutely determined to ride that sucker into the ground?
Now imagine how your friends feel when they’re watching you holding on to that toxic relationship for dear life. Whether you genuinely can’t see the toll that your failing coupledom is taking on your life or you simply can’t believe that you could find someone else – or that you deserve better – sometimes you find that you’re an emotional Slim Pickens, riding the A-bomb of their love straight into the Russian steppes that is your relationship and bringing nothing but devastation in your wake.
Hey, if that sounds like you, don’t beat yourself up. We’ve all been there. I’ve had one particularly toxic relationship in college that endured for two years between when I realized it needed to end and when I finally broke it off.1 But when I finally did…
The only way I can think to describe it is akin to the day I quit the worst job I ever had – doing tech-support for a notable cell-phone company. I was absolutely convinced that the job was draining the life out of me2 and after one particularly trying day that involved a bomb-threat, I finally stood up, threw down my headset, told my supervisor that he could kiss my ass and I was giving my notice and walked out the door. The feeling of freedom that overcame me, like I had just shrugged off a massive weight that I hadn’t realized I was carrying almost set me to tears.
Breaking up with my toxic girlfriend? Kinda like that… only better.
If I had known then what I know now, I would never have waited so long… especially since I would have been able to recognized the signs that it was long past time to break up.
Of course, sometimes it’s easy to mis-read the signs. Just as there’s nothing as soul-killing as being stuck in a relationship gone bad, you don’t want to make the mistake of ending a perfectly healthy relationship just because you mistook the usual ups and downs of every relationship. So let’s look at five signs that it’s time to break up… and when it’s not.
#5: Your Lives Are Going In Different Directions
One of the best parts of a relationship is building your future together. In an ideal world, this person is your partner-in-crime, the person who you know you’re going to love even when the two of you are broken down and decrepit and you’re having to change their adult diapers.
Over time however, you realize that you both have incredibly divergent ideas of what your future entails. You’re excited to pick out the names of your future children… but she’s realizing that she doesn’t want kids. Ever. You’re a driven, ambitious professional and he can’t be bothered to look for work because he’s needs the time to “work on his music”. Or “write his novel.” Or any number of excuses. They seemed plausible – even charming – when you first started but now you’re worried that you’ve tethered yourself to a slacker who’s going to be holding you back.
It needn’t be as dramatic as fights over having children or how many. It could be as simple as where the two of you will live, or your where you are with your careers. Where are the two of you going to live: the big city? The suburbs? A house in the middle of nowhere? Are you willing – or able, for that matter – to pull up stakes if your significant other gets an offer for her dream job that requires moving across the country? Or worse: half-way around the globe?
Everyone’s familiar with the idea that opposites attract, but in reality, if you’re too different, it’s going to end up being a massive strain on your relationship. As much as you may even genuinely love each other, the cold hard fact is that sometimes being in love just isn’t enough to make a relationship work.
When It’s Not:
The younger you are, the easier it is to be flexible. The life you imagine for yourself – especially when you’re still in college or fresh out in the world – isn’t necessarily the one that you’ll actually want, or even end up in. In fact, there will be plenty of times that you’ll find that your expectations and dreams have changed and you’re holding onto those old dreams out of habit or nostalgia. Before you pull the trigger, you need to take some time to think about just how firmly you’re committed to your current life… and whether you’re willing to make some sacrifices in the name of your relationship.
#4: You’re A Different Person When You’re With Them
One of the earliest signs that my college relationship had gone bad came during the summer before I graduated. By necessity, our relationship was temporarily long-distance; we lived a good 3000 miles away from each other, so we wouldn’t be seeing much of each other until the fall rolled back around. Since this was before the days of Skype, ubiquitous cellphones with nationwide minute plans and widely available broadband connections, we were reduced to e-mail, instant messages and long-distance phone calls that threatened to plunge us into bankruptcy.
One day, some old friends and I were hanging out at my house getting caught up when my girlfriend at the time called. I picked up the phone and my friends quietly left the room to let me have some privacy. After thirty minutes – at least ten of which were spent saying “Babe, I have to go. My friends are here. I have to go. I have to go.” – one of my friends poked his head through the door. “That was $NAME, wasn’t it?” he asked.
“Yeah, how’d you know?” I replied, curious.
“Because every time she calls, the life drains right out of you,” he said.
At the time, I dismissed him… but he was right. And he wasn’t the only person who noticed. Everybody did. My mother, my brother, my friends in college… all of them saw the profound difference in my attitude, outlook and even my body language when I was with her versus when I was away from her, even for a few hours. I was literally the only person who didn’t see it. And that should have been a warning sign.
It can be hard to tell how much we change when we shift between our social circles. We frequently lack the perspective to see the differences. Sometimes it’s as simple as feeling drained when you’re with them and feeling energized when you’re with the rest of your friends. Sometimes it’s a subtle shift between being a dynamic, assertive person when you’re away from your significant other and becoming a submissive beta when you’re with them, afraid to take a stand for fear of provoking another fight.
It’s natural that you’re going to behave slightly differently depending on who you’re hanging out with. But night and day changes are a sign of trouble. Now don’t get me wrong: your relationship isn’t a democracy, and your family and friends don’t get ultimate veto power over who you date. But when all of your friends are pointing out how sad or upset you seem whenever you’re with your girlfriend… it’s time to start thinking of getting out.
When It’s Not:
Consider the numbers and sources. Is it just all of your friends or just a couple of them? Are your friends jealous that your relationship is taking you away from them, or are they genuinely concerned for your welfare? Is the problem that you’re not as willing to indulge in juvenile or even hazardous behavior ever since you started dating your current partner? There are times when you realize that your friendships are what have turned toxic, not your relationship with your girlfriend or boyfriend. Sometimes your boyfriend has a legitimate reason to hate your friends.
#3) You Fight Wrong.
Every relationship has it’s moments of friction and conflict to be sure. But when you guys fight, you fight. I’m not talking about resentful silence on the drive home or the occasional blow-up or even the long-standing Topics Which You Do Not Discuss. I mean the old-fashioned knock-down, drag out screaming matches that seemingly spring up out of nowhere. The little jibes and teases you used to trade back and forth aren’t flirty anymore; they’re the opening salvos in the coming war.
You fight over everything and when you do, you both fight dirty. Nothing is off limits; you’ll both drag up incidents from the past that you had thought were long behind you and you both aim deliberately for each other’s weak spots. You know he’s sensitive about his weight. He knows you’re embarrassed by your sexual past. You’ll threaten to leave her there and go home. She threatens to fuck someone else in revenge. It doesn’t matter what the latest inciting incident was; now it’s just another in a long string of triggers. You don’t make up so much as reach an uneasy detente. You may make your (temporary) peace and resolve to make things better but you both know that resentment is still there, bubbling under the surface and just waiting to erupt again and no amount of make-up sex is going to fix things.
It’s one thing to have a fight – they happen, no matter how “perfect” the relationship is. It’s another when what you’re fighting about isn’t really what you’re fighting about. When you’re fighting wrong – when you’re not listening to the underlying meaning of what the two of you are saying, when you’re both using past mistakes that you’ve supposedly forgiven as weapons – the issue frequently isn’t the subject of the fight. The issue is the two of you. And it’s a sign that it’s time to drop the hammer on your relationship and get out.
When It’s Not:
Fighting in and of itself isn’t a sign that something’s wrong with a relationship, nor is never fighting a sign that everything’s perfect. Sometimes fighting can be the results of two passionate people in a relationship. Sometimes it’s a legitimate airing of grievances. As long as you’re fighting fairly – you’re sticking to the issue at hand, you’re taking care not to deliberately hurt each other’s feelings, you’re taking the time to be aware that what you’re saying may not be what she’s hearing – fights aren’t a sign that the end is nigh. They’re just signs that there is something the two of you need to work out.
#2) You Have No Life Outside of the Relationship
Dipping back into the aforementioned disaster that was my college relationship, I quickly learned that my life outside of my relationship with my ex had been summarily curtailed. Hanging out with my friends was tolerated only grudgingly, and even then only for limited amounts of time. My hobbies? Similarly cut back. I wasn’t going to the comic store without her. Any movies I saw were ones she would see with me and no others. Gaming? That was “stupid” and “juvenile”, and she couldn’t possibly see why I would like it – she and her friends would make fun of me , to my face, for playing D&D. The few times I was allowed to rejoin my gaming group were the subject of intense negotiation… and even then, I would frequently find myself being dragged away with little warning or explanation.
Time away over the winter and summer breaks were not much better. Woe betide he who did not spend all due time on the phone with his girlfriend when she demanded it. To make sure that I could be reached at all times, she bought me a pager (( This should tell you how long ago this was.)) . If I happened to be slow getting back to her, then I’d better have a damned good excuse… like an honest to god invasion.
I was beyond whipped. I had no life outside of our relationship… Hell, I wasn’t allowed a life outside of our relationship. And yet, I stuck with it because – rather than seeing these as huge warning signs that I needed to run and never look back – I thought this was just how relationships worked.
Not every example needs to be quite as dramatic as mine was, but when your entire life revolves around your partner, it’s a bad sign.
When It’s Not:
There’s a difference between being codependent – or an abusive relationship, for that matter – and not having a life of your own. Your life may be in transition. You may just not have many friends. You and your girlfriend or boyfriend may just have so many interests in common that you tend to do everything together. The difference is whether you could a life of your own if you were to make the effort, or if you’re forever sublimating your own desires and independence to someone else’s.
#1: The Sex Isn’t Working
When you first got together, the two of you would set the sheets on fire. For a while, there wasn’t a flat surface in your apartment that you hadn’t banged out on. You couldn’t keep your hands off each other.
But then… it all changed. Maybe it was slow and subtle. Maybe it came suddenly and without warning. But where you used to have sex every day and twice on Sundays, now you haven’t in… you’re not entirely sure how long. One day you were a passionate couple and the next… she’s told you that she’s no longer interested in sex. And by extension, neither are you.
Or maybe it’s not a matter of incompatible libidos. Maybe it’s a matter of differing interests. He’s really into BDSM, and while you were willing to indulge him a little – you’d let him handcuff you to the bed, maybe some blindfolds and spanking – he’s always wanted more than you felt comfortable doing… and you’re not comfortable letting him off the leash to get his needs met elsewhere. Maybe you’re into anal play but it squicks her out. Maybe she has rape fantasies that give you the wiggins.
Maybe it’s not even something so extreme. Maybe it’s just that the sex isn’t good anymore. It’s become routine; five minutes of foreplay, followed by missionary position, with some female superior if you’re lucky. Always at night, always in bed… no variety at all. Or maybe it’s just that you’re tired of sex with your partner, period. You may actually find yourself trying to avoid sex – something that you would never believe you would do.
American culture is, still, sex negative in a lot of surprising ways. One of them is the importance of sex in a relationship. We – men, especially – are told that getting strung out over sex in our relationship is a sign that we’re being selfish and that if we truly loved our partner, sex – or the lack thereof – wouldn’t be such a big deal. And yet, ultimately, this just leads to unhappy relationships and infidelity, which will bring about the end of the relationship anyway.
The fact of the matter is, sexual satisfaction is an incredibly important component of any successful relationship. When the sex just isn’t working any more – and no amount of work is going to bring it back – the relationship ultimately isn’t working any more. Whether it’s incompatible sex drives or an inability or unwillingness to fulfill certain desires or kinks, an unsatisfying sex life is a sign that it’s time to bite the bullet and end the relationship.
When It’s Not:
The half-life of sexual passion in a new relationship is six months to a year. The fact of the matter is, it’s difficult – nigh impossible -to maintain the same level of passion that you feel at the start of a relationship. While the passion fades, a stronger, more intimate bond forms. Sex becoming less frequent isn’t per-se a sign of things are wrong with your relationship. The fact of the matter is, in any long-term relationship, passion and sexual attraction will come and go in waves. There will be times when you don’t have sex for months or even years, and then without warning you’ll be like a couple of teenagers again, tearing off your underwear with your teeth.
Nor should you be abandoning ship at the first sign of trouble, sexually. Communication and effort are the key. It’s when you’ve tried to fix things and you’re still stuck in that rut that it’s time to consider leaving.
- It’s also why I have the ultimate break-up story and you don’t, but that’s for another time. [↩]
- turns out it was; I contracted pneumonia, a throat infection and mono all at the same time while on the job [↩]