Looking for signs your relationship is over? Chances are, you're already in a difficult patch and worried that your partner is looking for a way out, or you want to confirm your own suspicions about your partnership.
Either way, it can be hard to accept that the end of your relationship may be on the horizon. If you're married, in another long-term arrangement, or have been dating your partner for a while, seeing the signs that things are not as rosy as they once were isn't a good feeling for most people. But being prepared, no matter which side of the partnership you fall on, could save you a nasty surprise.
Here, to find out the key signs to look for, we've spoken to two relationship experts with plenty of experience helping couples navigate changing dynamics and learn how to revive romance in a relationship.
7 signs your relationship is over
1. You're withdrawing from your partner (or they're withdrawing from you)
Writer Elie Wiesel got it right when he said, "the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference". It's one of the relationship quotes that's gone down in history because it's so accurate, with most of us distancing ourselves from our partners when we want to end the relationship rather than fighting with them.
"People usually think overt conflict is a sign of a failing relationship but mutual withdrawal is much more likely to be a sign that the relationship is failing," says Kate Engler, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "The couple may even be cordial and polite to each other in their interactions and on the surface seem fine. Usually, when couples are in this state there is a mountain of unattended-to anger, resentment, hurt, and/or fear."
This could especially be the case if you've been experiencing problems in your relationship for a while, says Engler, who is also the owner of Three Points Relationships. "Over time, this distancing becomes a habit. It gets harder and harder to reconnect because no one wants to take a risk and put themselves out there, but connection and repair require risk and vulnerability. Without it, the couple grows increasingly lonely and isolated. Eventually they reach a state of apathy, which is usually the death knell of the relationship."
2. Communication is aggressive
There's never an excuse for violence in any kind of relationship - and that includes the language that you use towards each other, says Emma Cullinan, a BACP integrative therapist specializing in relationship problems.
"Three signs your relationship is over are anger, violence, and criticism," she tells us, pointing out some of the biggest red flags in a relationship. "If you are scared of your partner, if they are constantly making you feel you are somehow lacking, and/or they are ridiculing you, laughing at you, or rolling their eyes when you say things, then it's time to go."
3. Communication is confrontational
But verbal and body language doesn't just have to be violent or aggressive to signal the end of the partnership. Constant confrontation of any kind can be a sign it's time to end things, or at least learn how to establish deal breakers in a relationship around this type of behavior. "This is especially true when the interactions are primarily made up of defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling, or contempt," says Engler.
As named by relationship researcher John Gottman, these are called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, she explains. "He was intentionally dramatic with the name because his research showed the presence of these four ways of communicating point to the demise of a relationship. Contempt is the most corrosive and once it's the major player in a relationship, it's very hard to move beyond it."
Contempt looks different depending on the individual, but common signs of contempt include:
- Disrespectful communication habits, such as not listening and interrupting
- Constantly correcting
- Constantly competing to be better within the relationship
- Criticisms, even ones you may think are small at the time
- Mockery, including so-called 'lighthearted jokes'
- Constant sarcasm
- Non-verbal signs, like deep sighing and eye-rolling
4. You're no longer on the same page about important topics
It's perfectly natural to change and grow in a relationship, addressing the ways that you've grown is a good thing - especially if you're looking to learn how to spice up your relationship after being together for a few years. "However, sometimes the people in a couple grow in different directions or at different speeds and if the individuals change in a way that impacts their values, especially the values on which your relationship foundation is based, it can be problematic," says Engler.
"One very concrete example is if when the couple gets together they both agree they don't want children but later one of the members changes their mind about this, it can end the relationship," she offers. "Having a baby is either you do or you don’t, so there's not likely going to be a compromise that works for everyone."
Cullinan, who is also part of The Couples Collective, agrees. "Nobody is going to tick all your boxes but it helps to know which are red lines. For instance, if you've grown up with a parent who wasn't really there for you consistently, then you might find it difficult to be with a partner who needs to spend a lot of time alone suddenly, whereas two people who like to do their own thing will be fine." This will especially be a problem for those who have quality time as one of their love languages.
But it's not only big life choices or ways of being that can split a pair, Engler continues. "In the last several years, I have seen this show up when the couple begins to diverge politically. There is such a sharp divide between the left and right, at least in American culture, and people's political affiliations are so tied to their values and identity. It's extremely hard to reconcile being in a relationship with someone who's on the other side of the political spectrum."
5. There's no intimacy
Research, as outlined by Ohio State University, shows that married couples who report a deficiency or absence of intimacy have a significantly higher proportion of relationship problems and it's a key component in how many people in the study ranked their social support.
However, if you've been with your partner for a few years, chances are your sex life has changed a bit. That's only natural, research by Ludwig Maximilian University says, with sexual satisfaction for many people steadily declining after just one year in a relationship. You might be wondering is it important to have sex to maintain a relationship because you'd just rather not have it anymore, or you might be thinking that this is a sure sign your relationship is over.
Intimacy, that feeling of closeness and togetherness, is incredibly important in a romantic relationship but it comes in many forms - not just the physical intimacy we often think of - and includes emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and social connection. So, while a total lack of intimacy and that feeling of closeness is a sign that your relationship needs work, the good news is that you don't have to have sex to maintain intimacy with your partner. There are plenty of ways to stay connected and learn how to be intimate without sex, and few experts will say that little to no sex in a marriage or another long-term relationship means it's over.
6. You don't have sexual compatibility
When it comes to sex in a relationship, the key factor is sexual compatibility, explains licensed sex and relationship therapist Kendra Capalbo. This is when you have the same wants sexually, the same turn-ons, and the same desire for frequency and type of sex as your partner. If you're in a rebound relationship, this may change pretty quickly through your time together.
"I often see issues in couples where one partner needs sex to feel connected but the other needs an emotional connection to want sex," she says. "Sometimes in those situations, when a couple drifts away from each other or has conflict, it ends up being a vicious cycle of neither person having their needs met. The partner who needs sex to feel connected can be emotionally distant and when that's lacking, the partner who needs an emotional connection to want sex is left feeling isolated and then doesn't want sex."
If your sexual compatibility is way off, it is possible to repair it by tuning into each other's needs and learning how to have better sex. "It's important to identify the cycle and work within your couple to meet each other's needs to get out of it, in the hopes that you'll notice the next time it happens," says Capalbo, who is also the owner of Exclusiva Couples Retreats. However, if this is combined with other signs and a lack of willingness to work on the issue, sexual compatibility could be one of the signs that your relationship is over.
7. You're dreaming about another life
According to Harvard University, we spend half the day daydreaming. While it's perfectly natural, if you're thinking about an alternative life for yourself - perhaps one where you're single or in a relationship with someone else - more often than not, then it may be one of the biggest signs your relationship is over.
Often though, says Cullinan, these are the relationships that are harder to leave as you'll likely be "rubbing along OK" and it's very easy to stay for too long in a situation that works for now "but you feel something is lacking".
That's not to say making a move is an easy decision, she adds. "The difficulty here is that you are leaping into the unknown."
Can you fix a broken relationship?
Yes, a relationship that appears to be 'broken' or having issues can certainly be repaired, says Engler, but it won't be easy. "The longer any of these things have been going on, the longer it takes to unravel them," she notes. "Both members of the couple must really want to change in a way that feels good for everyone involved. Change is hard even when you want it so if you are lukewarm about it, it's not likely to happen." Given this, the therapist has some tips for couples who are looking to repair their relationship:
- Reflect on yourself: "Both members of the couple need to commit to reflecting on themselves and their contributions to the issues that are problematic. While the proportion of responsibility may not be 50-50, these issues are always co-created," she says. "This commitment should be clear and concrete. What are you going to do to make this happen? Also, how is this going to happen? Will you set aside time every day? Every week? When? How will you make sure it happens?"
- Acknowledge any lingering hurts or resentments: "Then make genuine repair and amends," she suggests. "There's lots of good info out there on how to do this in a meaningful way. I don’t think most of us know how to do this well, so I would definitely read up on it or work with a therapist but some of my favorite resources include The New Rules of Marriage by Terry Real and Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson."
- Learn new ways of engaging with each other: "Read books together, listen to relationship podcasts, watch informational shows. There are lots of ways to do this, but if you don’t practice it won’t change. It’s like learning any new skill. If you wanted to learn to play the cello or basketball, you would need to actually do those things every day, or at least regularly. You can’t just think about it a lot and hope to become Yo-Yo Ma or LeBron James."
- Make an agreement with each other: In fact, the therapist recommends you go one step further than this. "Create a relationship contract that outlines your values and the ideal way you would like to be in the relationship," she suggests. "It should also include concrete ways you will contribute to the relationship [i.e., I will be responsible for all gifts for family members]. Then establish regular relationship check-ins where you review the contract and your commitments to each other and make any necessary tweaks."
However, while seeing signs your relationship is over doesn't necessarily mean it is, it's also important to remember that some relationships are not possible to save. "If abuse of any sort or untreated addiction are present, and if the partner who is abusive or struggling with substances refuses to seek help, the relationship should not continue. It's impossible to work through issues when this is happening," says Engler.
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Grace Walsh is woman&home's Health Channel Editor, working across the areas of fitness, nutrition, sleep, mental health, relationships, and sex. In 2024, she will be taking on her second marathon in Rome, cycling from Manchester to London (350km) for charity, and qualifying as a certified personal trainer.
A digital journalist with over six years experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace has covered (almost) everything in the world of health and wellbeing with bylines in Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more.
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