We all know relationships are hard work, but they’re not supposed to be hell. These 21 tell-tale signs spell perdition for even the most committed couples.
Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does.
Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.
– James Baldwin
The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away
– B.B. King
Unless we truly know it’s over, we never want to believe it. The “I’m done” moment is usually recognized in hindsight. Sure, we’ve been hurt, even grievously wounded, but there’s always hope, there’s always faith. When turned towards the positive, hope and faith are powerful forces and miraculous sources of healing, but when employed as mechanisms of denial, they form the pillars of a delusional world, along with their companion—fantasy. Quitting is a dirty word, and it’s drilled into us that we should never give up. Knowing when it’s right to quit, when it’s best to move on, is the key to your emotional survival, and these 21 signs can help you come to terms with the heartbreaking realization that what once was is no more and is never going to be. As a rule, if you can say yes to four or more of these in your relationship, it’s time to close the book and begin a new chapter.
1. Resentment. Are you suffering silently, taking your lumps, gritting your teeth, and never directly confronting your partner over behaviors that make you angry? You may think you’re saving the relationship by not speaking up, but you’re actually flooding yourself with resentment that will inevitably overflow. Don’t fool yourself into believing your reservoir is unlimited. The tipping point will come, and your resentment will influence your own behavior, in ways you may not even be aware of, leading you to get back at your partner and drive the death stake into the relationship. When resentment moves in, communication has moved out, and there’s little hope for reconciliation.
2. Disrespect. If you or your partner have reached the point of showing disrespect or being dismissive of each other, forget it. There’s no quicker way to erode good will and make it easy for someone to stop loving you. People may keep their bodies in the room if they’re treated badly—particularly in the cycle of abuse—but their hearts and minds soon check out, and the relationship becomes a hollow shell.
3. Contempt. Marriage expert John Gottman cites contempt as the deadliest of his “four horsemen” (the others are criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling) and claims he can tell if a marriage will fail by watching a couple for just 15 minutes. I know whereof he speaks. Contempt is like liquid nitrogen. A cold look of scorn from the one who’s supposed to warm your heart means you’ve fallen through the ice and you’re drowning in the frozen pond, and no, your partner is not going to save you.
4. Lying. There’s lying to your partner and lying to yourself. Neither protects your partner or the relationship. Pretending you still love someone and speaking false words to mask your betrayal doesn’t insulate your partner from harm; it only delays and magnifies the damage. Similarly, pretending you’re happy and convincing yourself, against your heart and better judgment that everything is OK constitutes an abandonment of self and a withdrawal from reality. If you can’t stay grounded in the here and now, the relationship can’t thrive.
5. Mistrust. Do you really think it’s wise to be with someone you can’t trust? Do we have to say more about this one?
6. Badmouthing. Anything good you have to say about your partner should be said in public. Anything bad is best kept private, unless you’re on your way out and confiding in your family or close friends. Public badmouthing, even if it’s meant as a joke or petty complaining, is the tip of an iceberg of deep dissatisfaction that can sink your relationship to the bottom of the sea.
7. Distancing. When you find yourself tuning out, seeking distractions, and making a conscious effort to avoid connection and intimacy, it’s time to step away from the source of your pain. You might still wear each other’s rings or live under the same roof, but if you’ve severed the emotional bond or you’re slowly letting it unravel, you may as well make a clean break.
8. Demanding proofs of love. “If you loved me, you would . . .” Allowing this absurd request to rule your life is so tempting. After all, it’s often so easy just to get it over with and do the thing your partner asks. But what your partner is really saying is, “I don’t believe, trust, or accept your love unless you go through this hoop for me.” It’s not actually a proof of your love, but a way of soothing your partner’s anxiety and addressing the feeling that he or she is unlovable, and soon enough the hoop becomes a ring of fire. The only person who can change those feelings of unlovability is their owner, and asking you to do it is a sign your partner is mentally unwell.
9. Public humiliation. Has your partner ever shamed you in public, with outrageous behavior, by airing dirty laundry, or by accusing or severely mistreating you? An apology will always follow, but it wasn’t an accident or the result of too much drinking, and despite the promises, it will be repeated. It’s evidence of a fragile ego and deep-seated self-hatred. No amount of love you give can make someone love themselves, and without help, your partner will only make you more and more miserable.
10. Obsession with another person. If one partner is obsessed with someone outside the relationship—either a potential love interest or even a best friend—there’s a good chance that availability and connection have broken down within the relationship. It’s healthy not to have all the energy directed inward, but your partner must remain your primary focus. Obsession also indicates an unmet need, but it’s likely one you can’t meet for your partner.
11. Obsession with pornography. The jury is out, but some find a little bit of smut, enjoyed together, to be a turn-on. Watching others can also be a way for couples to express their fantasies and get in touch with what they want in bed. But obsessive consumption of porn by one or both partners is a sign that satisfaction will always elude that person, and the quest for the holy grail—or multi-orgasmic image—will lead down a road of extreme perversion.
12. Emotional infidelity. A one-night stand with a colleague on a business trip, a brief fling with the hot personal trainer, distasteful and devastating as these are, they need not be relationship killers. Sexual monogamy is hard and not necessarily hard-wired. The first question a partner inevitably asks when the indiscretion is discovered or disclosed is “Do you love him/her?” It’s transference of the emotional attachment we fear the most, because emotional intimacy is the core of a relationship and makes everything else possible.
13. Inability to resolve conflict. This manifests first as endless fighting without reaching agreement and after a while morphs into the “whatever” stage, in which partners stop caring about the outcome because they’ve stopped investing in the relationship. There’s something to be said for the maxim of never going to bed angry. If neither partner can be the bigger person, give up the need to be right, and approach conflict in a conciliatory fashion, there’s no point in continuing.
14. Sabotage. When we do things unconsciously that damage our relationship, it’s our psyche telling us we want and need out. You can say you want to stay until you’re blue in the face, but your actions will always speak louder than your words.
15. Addictive behaviors. If your partner is a substance abuser, a compulsive spender or gambler, a sex addict, or even a true workaholic, your relationship will never take first priority. And unless it does, you won’t be happy. Not to mention that addictive behaviors, especially when enabled, can ruin lives.
16. Unhealthy attachments. Is your partner still attached to an ex-spouse or former lover or enmeshed with his or her family? These attachments can disrupt and ultimately destroy the fabric of a healthy relationship, eating holes in it until it disintegrates. Honor thy mother and father. Respect thine exes, especially if you’ve had children with them. But always put your partner first. If you feel like you’re second fiddle—or fifth violin—it’s time to face the music.
17. Threats and emotional blackmail. These should never, ever occur in a healthy relationship. They are often presented as being about love but they are always about control. Period. And control is a form of abuse. Period. Run from these as fast as you can.
18. Comparisons and ratings. Is your partner comparing you to others—people who earn more, look more attractive, or have a better personality? Or rating your attributes on a scale? This is a form of denigration. If someone thinks the grass is greener, or that they won’t have to fertilize and pull weeds in another field, let them go for it, and let them go. We’re each unique individuals, and how we measure up against another or some arbitrary standard isn’t relevant. In a nod to number 8: if your partner loved you, he or she wouldn’t do that.
19. Indifference. Honestly. Why stay if you no longer care?
20. Withdrawal of affection. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a roommate, but if you want more from your relationship, don’t stay with a partner who has become one.
21. Physical violence. Never acceptable under any circumstances. No excuses. No explanations. No justifications. No more.
Ultimately, in my opinion, all relationship conflict and the behavior that accompanies it springs from pain. If the conflict is an attempt to open and cleanse a wound, to promote healing, to mend holes, strengthen the bond and bring partners closer together,—then you have a “fighting” chance. But if it is an effort to rend and tear apart, to bash and smash and break, to assuage one’s own pain by causing pain for another, the writing is on the wall. We’d best read it, or we’ll end up weeping.