Inevitably, every relationship hits a point where both parties begin to wonder: “Why can’t it be like it used to?” When the bad times outweigh the good, when you’re constantly confronted with a “ships passing in the night” feeling, when everything seems different but you’re not sure what happened or why—these are the moments when you need to pause and figure out if you’re both in it for the long haul.
And while it might be tempting to simply throw in the towel and start afresh with someone new, that may not be the best solution. Here are 9 things to consider before giving up on a relationship.
1. Talk to each other.
This one seems so obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people bury their heads in the figurative sand the moment problems arise. Don’t assume that challenges will disappear if you ignore them long enough; in fact, the exact opposite usually happens—either issues fester until they explode without possibility of repair, or you become so distanced from one another that there’s no way back from a breakup.
Change is going to happen, now and later, but the goal is to continually unfold into the best versions of ourselves.
Instead, talk to each other. Be really, really honest about what you view as the problem, whether it’s your fault or the other person’s fault or nobody’s fault. Acknowledge that things are different than they once were, in a negative way, and articulate the fact that you’re feeling a little lost, confused, and disengaged.
2. Go to therapy.
If you and your partner discover that you can’t communicate very well, please consider seeing a couples counselor who is specifically trained to help people in relationships navigate rocky waters. There is no shame in asking for help; it’s actually a mark of maturity to realize when you need a third party to step in. A therapist cannot (and a good one will not) fix your problems for you, but he or she will help identify patterns and habits contributing to the issues at stake. More importantly, he or she is someone who can and should step outside the boundaries of your partnership in order to facilitate better communication between you two. When it seems like you’re having the same conversation over and over, but neither of you is really hearing the other person, that’s when a therapist will utilize their professional skills and experience to function as an unbiased listener.
Likewise, if the dilemma is on your side of the court, then perhaps you might benefit from going to individual therapy yourself. This can be especially useful if you’re confronting anxiety, stress, commitment fears, or any other personal roadblock preventing you from wholeheartedly participating in your relationship.
3. Know that change is healthy.
I once asked my grandma if, after 50 years of marriage, she felt like my grandpa was the same person as the man she fell in love with in high school. “Oh no,” my grandmother replied with a laugh. “But neither am I.”
I think when we get into relationships, we sometimes expect the other person to not only serve as our be-all, end-all partner for all things emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental—but also to stay the same, which is . . . completely unfair and unrealistic. Because we only grow as individuals when we do change, especially over the years, and there’s no way to predict how your partner might evolve over days, weeks, and seasons. If we didn’t change, then our lives would be awfully boring. Change is going to happen, now and later, but the goal is to continually unfold into the best versions of ourselves.
4. Remember why you fell in love in the first place.
Some of you will disagree with me, but I firmly believe that the “spark” in a relationship always goes away, to some extent. I don’t view that fact as depressing; I think it is realistic to realize that the monotony of real life can often smother the flames of passion or connection that appeared in the first place. Real love requires attention and nourishment and work; it’s not all fairy dust and romantic dinner dates and steamy bathroom make-out sessions. (Unless you’ve been watching The Bachelor, in which case, I’m sorry to burst your bubble.)
You’re in the right relationship when you’re willing to put forth the effort to keep a spark alive, whether it is the original one or something brand new. When you’re going through a tough time with your beloved, try to remember why you fell for him or her in the first place. What do you like about each other? What do you appreciate and respect? What sorts of things did you used to do together? Why did you pick this person to partner up with in the first place? Can you see your partner with fresh eyes?
5. Locate the root of the problem.
Ask yourself: What is the actual problem here? Take a step back and try to really see your relationship as a whole, and figure out if the sticky, hard parts are temporary or a signal of something bigger at stake.
Situations that are circumstantial may include: constant traveling for work, doing the long-distance dance, not being in the mood for sex, unequal distribution of housework, financial trouble, having a child, getting engaged, planning a wedding, career transitions, arguments with extended family, mental or physical health problems, etc.
You’re in the right relationship when you’re willing to put forth the effort to keep a spark alive, whether it is the original one or something brand new.
Now, you might look at that list and say, “Those things are not temporary—what are you talking about?” I don’t mean circumstantial in the small potatoes sort of way. I mean that in our lives, there are multiple transitional periods that might be limited or brief in time or scope. Or they might introduce a new set of struggles to your relationship, ones that you may or may not be able to cope with or resolve. It can be one or the other or both.
The point is that you have to acknowledge what you’re dealing with here. What’s been going on for you two lately? What is the environment of your relationship these days—is it negative or positive? Is anything within your control, or not? What are the patterns and habits showing up for you each individually, or together? The answer to “what is the problem?” might take you a while to find, and it might require professional help. But chances are high that once you can at least identify the landscape of your issues, and call out the roots of your disconnection, you’ll be better equipped to decide whether or not there’s opportunity for things to improve.
6. Be brutally honest.
This type of reflection and communication is easier said than done, of course, and sometimes the answers to these questions aren’t what we would choose or embrace with open arms. Try to be brutally honest. Resist the urge to create false narratives of “he always” and “she never.” Shy away from putting your partner in a box or jumping to conclusions or assuming you know exactly what he or she is thinking. (Remember the ‘ole “assuming makes an ass out of you and me” line? It’s true.) And then see what comes up with wide, open eyes.
7. Decide how much work you want to do.
Back to that whole work thing, I know. We’ve all heard the phrase “Love is fifty-fifty,” and well, that’s actually not true. Your relationship is not the place to keep score and behave tit-for-tat; it’s where you both devote 110% to the relationship in terms of your intention.
Like everything else, this ebbs and flows. There are moments in your relationship when it’ll be more like 30/70 or 40/60, in terms of tangible effort, and that’s OK. But you should both feel like you’re willing to give all you have to the relationship and to one another. If any part of you is like, “Eh, I don’t really care”—that’s a problem.
Notice that I didn’t say, “Decide how much work your partner needs to do.” Focus on yourself, because what you do and think and say and feel is really all you can control. Clean up your side of the street first as you acknowledge what you’re willing to do in order to better the relationship as a whole.
8. Imagine your future together (and apart).
Pause for a second and imagine your future with this person and then without. Notice the feelings that arise, such as grief, fear, longing, regret, disappointment, and anger. All of those are a natural byproduct of any breakup, whether it’s for the best or not, so I encourage you to instead pay attention past the pain to whatever else might appear. Is it relief, even if it doesn’t make sense? Is it resistance, because you don’t want to be alone? Is it a sensation like you know you are supposed to be with this person, for better or worse? Trust me, there will be some sort of clue to what you both want, long-term, deep in all those feelings.
9. Listen to your gut.
In a “Dear Sugar” column for The Rumpus, Cheryl Strayed writes, “An ethical and evolved life entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.” Look, intimacy is scary and commitment is overwhelming and relationships are hard work. You know, deep down, if you want to stay or go, so trust yourself. Don’t give up on a relationship if you feel there’s still work to be done and ways in which it can get better. And, also, if you are ready to leave, be enough brave to make that choice.