Contrary to popular opinion, love doesn’t conquer all. Relationships fall apart for various kinds of major and minor reasons, and it’s easy to rely on the perfect vision of hindsight to dissect what went wrong.
When I look back at my previous romances, I remember acknowledging warning signs along the way—when I wondered if things would work out or straight up knew they wouldn’t. Now, did I listen to these alarm bells? Of course not. I ignored red flags in real time and aimed for the happily-ever-after, only to be disillusioned down the road.
The silver lining is that I certainly learned from those mistakes, but I also wasted a ton of energy waiting around before calling it quits. And lest you make the same errors, here are some of the relationship warning signs to which I should have paid closer attention:
1. Your chemistry is mismatched.
One of my best friends from college had piles of curly brown hair, a winning smile, and wit for days. From the day we met, I wanted to talk to him nonstop and hang out with him constantly. I liked him so much, and he liked me too, only as more than a friend. I wanted to like him romantically because we seemed like such a great fit, except for one tiny thing…
I never wanted to kiss him. Like, ever. Late nights watching movies, evenings out drinking at parties, long walks on sunny afternoons—no matter the situation, I had no desire to make out with him. We could hug like there was no tomorrow with exactly zero twinge from my body parts in response to his affection.
Naturally, I very maturely told him that our chemistry lacked fire on my part and we went our separate ways.
Just kidding. That pseudo-relationship unfortunately dragged on for years. I meant well, but it was my fault; I desperately wanted to feel chemistry toward him, and I kept waiting for sparks to appear. I tried for a long time to make it happen, but you guys? It just wasn’t there, because you cannot fake or force chemistry. If it’s not there, it’s not gonna be.
You cannot fake or force chemistry. If it’s not there, it’s not gonna be.
That unique flicker of attraction you feel toward someone? That part should come easy. Save the effort for later, since the flames of real, lasting love takes years of work and attention to stay lit.
2. He or she is mean.
I used to have a serious penchant for bad boys—not the motorcycles and cigarettes sort, but the ones who were bad as in mean. I also, at the time, knew some couples who seemed to thrive on being rude to each other; they mocked one another, joked harshly, and spoke sarcastically. Frequently, this behavior was chalked up to being “real” or “honest” or “blunt,” and for a while, I accepted it. We all have sharp tongues every now and then, right? I told myself.
The thing is, meanness is not a trait that usually goes away. If anything, it deepens and evolves over the years, which is…not good, to say the least. If your significant other is regularly unkind, that’s not a personality flaw, it’s a signal to get the heck out of there. It doesn’t matter if he or she is a little mean, very mean, mean to waiters, mean to little kids, mean to old people, mean to total strangers, only mean to you, etc. Mean can easily lead to drama and abuse and low self-esteem and all kinds of other negative situations.
Or more simply: Life is too short to put up with mean people. You deserve better.
3. The timing is off.
Oh, the siren song of the on-again, off-again relationship. I spent years in this situation and you know what? It caused a great deal of pain for both of us.
Everyone has a story, though, of their sister’s brother’s niece’s coworker’s friend’s daughter who successfully navigated these waters and came out married. Guess what? That rarely happens. Waiting around for better timing, lamenting what “could be,” refusing to let go, dwelling on past connection and obsessing about future possibilities—none of it is real. It feels real, I know, but it’s not actually real. It’s just a time suck.
Or as my best friend puts it: “If you aren’t together, you’re not ‘meant to be together’ because you are Not. Literally. Together.” Slow clap.
Yes, maybe the timing will work out in the future, but that’s not where you are yet. If the timing constantly seems off with someone you love, it’s probably because you two aren’t aligned in the ways you need to be in order to move forward together. You may not ever get on the same page. It sucks, but it’s true.
4. You aren’t your best self.
Healthy relationships tend to bring out the best in you, so when that isn’t happening, pay attention. With one of my former significant others, I realized that I had stopped taking care of myself; I lost weight due to depression, distanced myself from family and became the most timid version of myself. It took me weeks and weeks to realize, oh wait, this is not who I am or want to be.
This one is tricky because there’s no one-size-fits-all. It can be drastically negative or related to a deal breaker issue that keeps coming up; for example, if you are constantly fighting about politics, religions, children, sex, or money, you’re probably not your best self. It can seem totally innocuous, like maybe you used to have hipster style and now you’re more preppy because your partner is into it and you’re trying to please him or her.
The point is, a relationship should allow you to grow into your best, unique, authentic self. Long-term relationships are meant to lift us up and help us evolve, not bring us down and keep us small.
A relationship should allow you to grow into your best, unique, authentic self. Long-term relationships are meant to lift us up and help us evolve, not bring us down and keep us small.
5. You feel pressure to stay…
One of my most serious partnerships lasted a long time for two reasons: First, I wanted to make everyone else happy, and second, I thought it was “too late” to call it quits.
If you discover that your thought process, when thinking about a life with your beloved, involves words like “should,” “must” and “ought”—pause. Yes, sometimes, we linger through the hard times with our partners to get to the other, brighter side, especially when marriage is involved. What I’m talking about is that dreadful sense of obligation and pressure to please others instead of yourself. I’m talking about the self-defeating inclination to make your life look good, or a certain way, even when it doesn’t feel good. I’m talking about being in a relationship solely to avoid being alone. Those thoughts and reasons are not likely to lead to an enduring partnership or long-term happiness.
6. …or you want to leave.
The flip side of this coin is when you seriously, repeatedly want to leave him or her, or vice versa. Cheryl Strayed writes in an incredible essay, “Wanting to leave is enough,” and it’s true. You may not always have a reason and you may not ever be able to put your finger on what’s missing, and the same goes for a partner who wants out.
It seems unfair to conclude a relationship based on a vague feeling alone, but tell me this: Do you want to be with someone who is half out the door? I doubt it; that can’t feel good. And likewise, why would you waste your time in a relationship that feels lackluster to you?
It’s not easy, but if one or both of you feels pressure to stay or interest in leaving, either figure out if there’s a problem at hand that can be solved or call it quits and move on to brighter and better connections.