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How to Know When to Let Go of a Relationship

By Callie Beusman

When you start to have doubts about whether you want to stay in a relationship, it can be a disorienting, scary feeling—especially if it’s a relationship you’ve put a lot of time, care, and love into. It’s easy to feel paralyzed or overcome with confusion; you may be agonizing whether it’s really right to end things, or whether you’re simply in a rough patch you can work through. 

Ultimately, when to let go of a relationship is a personal decision, one that every person has to make on their own. But there are a few clear indications that a relationship has run its course, and that ending things gracefully would be your best way forward.

If you’re unhappy more often than not in the relationship

This should be an easy thing to recognize, but it’s common to deny or intentionally overlook, especially when admitting you’re unhappy could bring up a lot of difficult and uncomfortable questions. Sit with your feelings and take stock of your emotional landscape by asking yourself, ‘how do I feel most of the time?’ Psychotherapist Dr. Barton Goldsmith brings up something he calls the 80/20 rule: The relationship should be good at least 80% of the time. “If you’re not at least 80% content, you know something’s wrong,” he says. 

Of course, it’s impossible to be harmonious and happy with your partner every second of every day, but if you’re not feeling good most of the time, that’s a sign that the relationship is not giving you what you need. “If you feel constantly drained and miserable from the relationship, then that’s an indication to reflect on whether you’re going through a rough patch, or if it’s a pattern,” says Amy Chan, author of Breakup Bootcamp: The Science of Renewing Your Heart. All relationships have challenging periods, but if your feelings of discontentment have persisted even after you’ve tried to discuss them with your partner, then things are unlikely to improve.

If your visions for the future aren’t aligned

Becoming seriously involved with someone means that, in some capacity, you’re committing to sharing a life and building it together. If the two of you want completely different things—from the future, from each other, or both—you’ll be in constant conflict. This is true no matter how strong your initial attraction was, or how compatible your personalities may be. 

If you’ve come to realize that your desires are incompatible, then that’s a valid reason to break things off. “It’s unlikely to course-correct the more time and effort you put into the relationship,” says Chan.

If certain tell-tale negative emotional reactions keep recurring

Dr. Mariana Bockarova, a behavioral scientist at Harvard, says research has shown that relationships are most likely to end when the following four attributes are present: contempt, stonewalling, defensiveness, and criticism. (These have been called “the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse.”) 

Per Dr. Bockarova, contempt manifests in you’re looking down on, or even feeling disgusted by, your partner. Stonewalling occurs when one of you tends to withdraw and shut down completely during arguments. Defensiveness is when one or both of you can’t take gentle criticism without feeling attacked. Criticism refers to a harmful pattern “where you or your partner insult the other, constantly nit-pick, and potentially name-call,” she says. If you keep experiencing any of these, that could be an indication that it’s time to move on.  

Above all, remember that you don’t need a “good” reason to end a relationship.

“If you’re even asking or wishing for a ‘good’ reason to end a relationship, then you already have your sign,” says Elise Dean, a life coach at Blush Life Coaching. “If your heart isn’t in it, then it’s time to get out.” 

Oftentimes, guilt or fear can keep us trapped in relationships that are no longer working. Remember that you deserve happiness, and so does the person you’re with. By staying with someone out of guilt or obligation, you’re denying them the chance to find someone who is genuinely excited to be with them. Try not to think of ending the relationship as an act of harm, but rather as something that might be beneficial for both of you in the long run. When you look at it this way, without all the attendant anxieties of the break-up itself, how do you feel? If the idea of a future without your partner makes you feel relieved, that should tell you something.