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You're not happy in your romantic relationship, and you haven't been for a while. You or the person you're with is not getting what you want or need. Some big issues have been getting in the way of what used to be something good. However you got to this point, you've been starting to wonder if you should stick with this or move on, and you don't know which to do. Sometimes, this can be an easy choice, like if you haven't been in a relationship long, if it's just really crap, or if you have an opportunity for something you think is going to be better.
But more times than not, we grapple with these decisions. We'll often feel torn about which choice is going to hurt us or someone else more. We hear from many of our readers who, even when a relationship is downright awful and everything that can be tried to fix it has been tried, have a hard time letting go and leaving. No matter what choices we wind up making, facing any of them can be intimidating and we may get stuck in inaction because we're afraid that whatever choice we make will be the wrong one.
A relationship doesn't need to be perfect or blissful 24/7 to be healthy or happy, and won't ever be, because people aren't perfect or blissed out every waking minute, and relationships are made of people. Conflicts, disagreements and problems do and will happen. We also won't always get everything we want or need all the time. People change over time, so something that worked once, or worked one way once, won't always stay working or keep feeling right, especially if the relationship doesn't change and grow along with us.
Some relationships stay great despite the occasional problem or hiccup, even a big one now and then. Others won't survive even little issues or will always have more conflict than harmony. Some conflicts can be managed and resolved while staying in a relationship; others can't, won't or maybe even shouldn't be, like if people want and need very different things. Some relationships are worth staying in and working through conflict, while staying in others may not be worth the energy and time, or may hurt everyone more by staying than by parting ways.
Deciding if it's best to stay or go can be a hard choice, but certain dynamics or feelings make clear a relationship is either likely to be worthwhile and good or likely to be crummy, a poor place to keep investing energy and will probably crash and burn, no matter what.
Most relationship experts agree the things in that second list are neon signs it's time to move on. Those are all things that demonstrate a relationship isn't working anymore, isn't beneficial or that you or someone else just doesn't want to be a real part of it. If what you and/or the person you're with are feeling and experiencing looks more like that second list, you've got to know it's time to seriously consider a split, because in a lot of ways, the relationship is already over.
If your relationship and the way you and the other person feel about it is more like that first list, or you don't feel ready to give up, then you are going to need to identify, address and work to resolve conflict you're having together for your relationship to continue, grow and be something good for everyone in it.
The phrase "resolving conflict" is easily misunderstood. It doesn't mean just trying to make conflict go away, shoving it in the back of the closet and pretending it isn't there or doesn't matter. It is there. It does matter. Conflict rarely gets resolved if people don't actively work it out, and isn't resolved if anyone just accepts that parts of the relationship really suck, and figures that someone just has to deal with being unhappy and not getting what they want and need.
Resolving conflict is a process, one usually positive in the process itself, not just when the outcome is what we want. When we work through conflict, we're feeding and watering our relationship, making real commitment to it, getting a better understanding of the issues and each other, and learning what we each can and can't do to make things better for both of us. We learn about our own, our partner, and our relationship's capabilities and limitations, strengths and weaknesses. In that process we usually deepen our relationship, even if we come to unwanted or uncomfortable conclusions. In other words, conflict can provide important opportunities we might not have had otherwise. If we try and look at it that way, addressing and dealing with it can feel less daunting or upsetting, and it's easier to see why dealing with it is smarter than trying to avoid it.
Sometimes we can resolve conflict and still stay in the relationship or kind of relationship we're in, like by learning to communicate better and more openly, making more time or emotional room for each other as individuals, creating more flexibility in our roles, making or honoring a certain kind of commitment or taking better care of ourselves. Other times, resolving conflict involves changing the nature of our relationship -- like switching from a romance to a friendship, switching from an open relationship to something more exclusive, moving out if we moved in together, or making a relationship a bigger or smaller part of our lives. Resolving conflict can also mean choosing to part ways altogether, either mutually, or where one person makes that choice and puts it into action, even if it's not what the other wants.
Whatever your conflicts are, here are the basic ways to try and work it out together. You can also use this list to check if you've yet exhausted the ways you might be able to make your relationship work if you're still feeling on the fence:
Talk it out: Open, clear and caring communication is the gas of every relationship's engine. If we're not communicating, we're not actually relating. So, talk some, talk some more and keep talking. When you talk, use active and reflective listening. Speak fairly and with kindness. Be brave: don't avoid saying things that scare you or you worry will make a partner react in ways you don't want. If you're worried about hurting feelings, say difficult things with as much care and personal responsibility as possible. Use "I" statements, focusing on what you feel and what you want and need, rather than on what the other person is or isn't doing or how they "make" you feel. Avoid ultimatums. If you're at a place where you're inclined to say things like "If you do/don't do X, then I'm done," you are probably done already.
Make real time for talking, rather than trying to talk on the fly or when there are distractions. Turn off the TV, stereo, cell phones or computers. Dedicate time for these talks, rather than trying to shove them in or rush them. If one way of communicating feels strained or difficult, you can always try other ways of doing so, like by writing letters or having long phone calls. Just choose ways of communicating where you have privacy, plenty of space for lots of words and where everyone involved feels emotionally safe. Texts or your Facebook wall aren't sound avenues for these kinds of talks.
When we're really upset or angry is often a better time to go for a walk or take a day to ourselves and process our feelings on our own, rather than to talk to a partner about them. You might talk to a friend instead, or journal how you're feeling when you're super-upset, then set a time to talk things out with a partner later, when your emotional storm has passed.
Come to these conversations with the understanding that everyone involved always gets choices, including the choice to stay or go: no one should be or feel forced to put up with things they don't like, want or can't deal with, because being in a relationship is a choice. If you aren't sure about the answers to the questions or issues raised in the stay/go lists up top, for yourself or about your partner, those can be good talking points to help you assess the relationship, figure out what's wrong, and to find starting points to resolve those conflicts.
Get outside help, perspective and advice. Talk to people you're close to and get their take: friends, family, mentors or others who trust and respect who you know care for and respect you. If someone you know has been in a relationship for a long time that seems great, or they generally seem to have awesome relationships, that can be an excellent person to get advice from, since they'll usually have a good handle on what's needed to make the good stuff happen.
You might consider seeing a counselor or therapist, especially if the issues in your relationship seem to be stemming from your own stuff that pre-dates the relationship or is separate from it (like depression, poor body image, low self-esteem, or previous abuse), or if you've noticed bad patterns in your relationships that keep coming up again and again. Couples counseling is often not a sound route for young couples. It's not usually covered by healthcare, is very costly, takes a lot of time, and is generally designed for people in a very different phase of life and for relationships people have been in far longer than you've likely been in yours. If you are going to need to continue some kind of relationship for a while even if you want out, like if you're pregnant or share custody of a child, are married, cohabitating or share a business, then it makes a lot more sense.
Recognize and accept differences or other things that aren't going to change, and try and ask only for realistic and reasonable change. We can all change many of our behaviors if we want to. But what we can't change is who we are, what our past has been, or what it is we want and need. We shouldn't be asked to, and we shouldn't ask those things of anyone else. Even if you cross that line, you need to know that often, you'll be asking the impossible, so won't get what you ask for, and also are putting someone in a position likely to make your relationship more sour than sweet.
It's fair to ask or be asked for some changes in behavior, like the way we talk to each other, how we act with each other around friends, how much time we do or don't spend together, certain sexual dynamics or or how well we listen. Just make sure that when seeking out those changes, you're both honest about what you each really feel capable of, and also what you want to change and don't. To earnestly change our behavior, we've got to want to do it for ourselves, not just for someone else.
But if someone's personality just doesn't mesh with yours, they don't want and need similar things, or you can't live with their past, you'll need to accept that and figure the only sound action you can take is to figure out what you do and don't want to live with and choose to either stay in the relationship with those things as-is, change the form or model of the relationship or move on entirely.
Make and take some space. I know, I know: the words "Let's take a break," or "I need some space" often cause eyes to roll. But it can be so tough to make these kinds of decisions well without time and space to ourselves, away from the relationship, especially when other ways of resolving conflict aren't working, just like it's hard to keep running if you can't stop now and then to catch your breath. Making and taking space can help everyone, and it's less scary when done with clear intention and direction. So, make a decision to take, say, a week or two without seeing or communicating with each other. Make agreements about what you're each going to do with that time, what you're going to be thinking about and what you each aim to come back to the other with after that time. Set a date to check back in and then talk from there, after having that space apart.
Try a different kind of relationship. Sometimes the trouble isn't that two people aren't a good fit, but that one kind of relationship isn't a good fit for those people. Maybe an exclusive romantic or sexual relationship isn't actually the best one anymore, or wasn't ever. It may be that making that relationship nonexclusive, nonsexual or shifting to a platonic friendship is the fix to what's gone wrong. Maybe friends with benefits stopped working and you need to focus more on the friendship and less on the benefits that aren't feeling so beneficial anymore. Even if you're not sure about if a different framework for a relationship will help, you can always just try something different for a while and see how it feels.
Be honest, fair and real. Don't misrepresent what you want and need. It can be tempting to do if you think doing so will mean a relationship you want to continue will, but it's much more likely to result in a relationship that tanks anyway and makes one or both people miserable in the process. Both people being able to get what they want and need is vital for a happy, healthy relationship.
For sure, we'll all make compromises sometimes, and compromising can also be something good that helps us and a relationship grow. But we want to strike a balance: make sure when compromise happens it's about people meeting in the middle, not one person bending backwards for the other, and that no one is giving up anything that feels essential to them, or doing anything they don't feel good about. Don't ask someone to make compromises when you're not willing to make any yourself. It's also important when making compromises we do so transparently, rather than keeping them secret. For relationships to work well, everyone in them really needs to be clued into what's going on in them. And not communicating about compromise or making sure it goes both ways are quick routes to Resentment City.
Be flexible in your thinking when trying to work problems out and ask the same of the other person. Be creative in approaches to issues, suggesting several different things to try, not just one, and try not to get stuck in only trying things you two already have that obviously aren't working.
Still not sure if you should stay or go?Already tried a bunch of the things in the list up there without results? Here are some common sticking points you can check in with yourself about. For the most part, these are all not-so-great reasons to stick with a relationship, so if any of them hits home, give them some real thought:
One thing you might be getting hung up on, that a lot of younger people do, is thinking more about the future or the could-be's than about the past and present and the what-is, right now, and what has been. Some folks also get stuck focusing on what a relationship was like when it was brand-new. We can also sometimes confuse the bigness of our feelings with the bigness of a relationship itself: sometimes the way we feel about someone or what we want with them is a lot more big or deep than the actual relationship we're in or will be able to have together.
Don't worry about what things could or may be like way down the line: right now, you want to think about how things are and have been up until now. It can also help to mentally scratch out the first few weeks or months of any relationship when we're assessing it. Why? Most typically, we tend to be on our very best behavior when a relationship is brand new. We're just getting to know each other, we're usually only gradually putting ourselves out there. How things were right at the start is how things were right at the start: it's not how they'll be past that point, even in excellent relationships. You can't have a long-term new relationship, and you don't need me to tell you why the idea you can doesn't make sense.
If the stages of relationships were ways we dressed, those first few months would be tuxedos and tiaras, and further in than that, we're talking about sweatpants and bedhead. And it's in that time when most people are more likely to be much more real, to be more like how we'll be as a relationship goes on. It can also be more helpful to look at how you two have been together through tougher times rather than when things were easiest: most of us show our truest colors when things get rough.
Stuck on the far-flung possible future? One thing trips a lot of young people up in relationships is the idea that the romantic relationship they're in at any given time must be The One. The thing is, while it's common to feel that way, and while our first or early relationships are usually important, the expectation those relationships will last for decades, or be one we're likely to stay in for life, is rarely realistic.
Relationships in adolescence are typically shorter than those you'll have later in life, and the younger you are, the shorter your relationships are likely to be. A large study of over 5,000 romantic relationships found that for those younger than 14, romantic relationships lasted around 5 months on average, for those 14-15, 8 months, and for those over 16, average romantic relationship duration was just over a year and a half. (National Estimates of Adolescent Romantic Relationships, Carver, Joyner, Udry, Adolescent Romantic Relations and Sexual Behavior, 2003, Psychology Press) An ongoing poll of Scarleteen readers here finds that, so far, less than 13% of our users under 20 typically have had romantic and/or sexual relationships that last beyond two years, and, on average, most relationships for those under 20 did not span longer than six months. The divorce rate for people who marry young is also much higher than for older adults who marry. Often how long relationships last during this time of life isn't so much about how good relationships are or are not or how mature or not people are, but about the fact that at this time of life, people are still doing a whole lot of growing and changing, which means relationships will change a lot, too, even if and when they feel eternal.
How long or short a relationship is isn't always the best measure of how good or important it is, anyway, no matter how old we are. Loads of older people have relationships that have gone on for 20 years and have been miserable much of the time. Staying in a relationship longer isn't going to magically change things. So, even when it feels like something is or should be forever, it's important to try and focus on the past, the present and only the future that's in pretty close range, like the next few months or year.
Rather than breaking up, some people passively let a relationship fade: calling less, avoiding someone, being less and less engaged when time is spent together until, eventually, one or both people give up and move on without any or much address of what choices they were making and what went down. While that can seem like people aren't actually doing anything, and a split is happening by itself, that's not true: choosing to be passive and letting a relationship fall away is still doing something.
While that can sometimes seem easier than a more forthright breakup, and certainly allows at least one person to avoid some responsibility, there are big problems with taking that route. It's often a slow agony for one or both people. Someone is going to endlessly wonder what's going on and feel lost, continuing to make efforts to connect in vain and feeling like a total jerk when they're left to swing in the wind. That way of splitting also usually leaves both people without any resolution, which is pretty important to have so we feel able to close a door and move on.
If anyone involved in the relationship invested real effort and care into it, it disrespects those efforts. Lastly, even when relationships tank, we often get important information that helps us with future relationships, like what we want and don't want, like what did and didn't work. When someone is just left hanging like that, they get less information to make it more likely for both of you to have the kinds of relationships go better down the line. Assuming you each cared about each other once, one'd hope you both care enough to part with care, too.
A lot of people will avoid breakups, go the slow fizzle route or or try and passively get someone else to do the breaking up because they don't want to be "the bad guy."
Remember when your relationship was great, and you were so focused on both of you being happy? If a relationship is making either or both of you unhappy, then ending or changing it can be done in that same spirit: in support of mutual happiness. Even if one person is way more unhappy in a relationship than the other for now, and so they see a breakup as a bad thing, in time, staying in something that isn't working for one person is going to make both people unhappier and unhappier if both are really interacting with and invested in each other.
That doesn't mean that the other person might not still see you as the bad guy, especially at first. They might, just like they might if you stay together. But sometimes in life we have to make tough decisions everyone isn't going to like, even if we -- and they -- know now or later they're the best decisions. Whether it happens with romantic or sexual partners, with friends or family, if and when we parent (where you may be "the bad guy" for years at a time sometimes) at work or at school, sometimes in life we're going to have to be "the bad guy" and there's just no avoiding that if we're something other than bystanders in our own lives.
It's also pretty easy to avoid feeling like the bad guy -- or being seen as the bad guy -- overmuch if you do your best to go about a breakup in the most thoughtful, caring way possible
Breakups are a bummer. There's really no getting around that. They also often hurt for one or both people. But a lot of the time, a big part of why a breakup hurts so much is about the way people went about it.
Ideally, when we're invested in a relationship and start to have conflicts, problems or issues, we talk about them, right from the start. And when we're trying to work things out, if and when either of us starts to feel like they just might not be workable, we're filling the other person in, not keeping those feelings secret. Not only does doing that make it a lot easier to break up if and when it comes to that -- and to have it be more of a mutual decision than what one person does to another -- it doesn't leave the other person feeling like a bomb got dropped on them because they thought everything was fine and only found out it wasn't when they got a one-way ticket to Dumpsville.
That said, breakups often don't happen that way because by the time someone is thinking about breaking up, they're not just at the end of their rope, but several yards past it, and communication has broken down. In our first few relationships, things also have probably moved so fast that the shift from things being great to things being awful can happen quickly. It's also all too easy, especially when we're new to intimate relationships, to get caught up in or manufacture a lot of drama.
The best you can ever do is just the best that you can at the time. So, whether you've been communicating along the way to your decision to splitting up or not, here are a handful of things to make a breakup a lot easier on everyone.
While there isn't a "right" time, there are some wrong ones. The right time for a breakup is pretty much when you know you want or need to break up. There's never going to be a perfect time when you can be sure no one will feel hurt, or when the other person won't be angry or disappointed with you. If you're waiting for a perfect time, you're going to be waiting forever.
That said, be kind with your timing. Holidays or birthdays are awful times to break up with someone. Same goes for around big exams or competitions, or when a person is in the midst of a serious crisis outside the relationship, like a problem with their own health, a death in the family or another major crisis. Sometimes that timing is unavoidable, but when possible, a better tactic if you're feeling the breakup mojo coming on during those times is to ask for some space, or to focus on the friendship part of your relationship during those times, and then do a breakup after the holiday, stressful time or crisis has passed or calmed down.
Splitting up is something to ideally do in person, face to face. Texting or voice mail are great for reminding someone to pick up the milk or sending a cute note, but as ways to split up with someone, they're best to avoid if you can, since they usually feel pretty rough on the other end. If you're in a long-distance relationship where a face-to-face meeting is impossible for a long time, or could only happen at great cost to both people, choose to split with something like a long phone call or a tool like Skype where you can talk face-to-face virtually.
Be clear and direct. When you know you want or need to break up, it's not time for negotiation or discussions about how to fix things. That time is done. You need to be very clear that you are choosing to break up and that a break up is what's happening. Statements like "I think we should maybe break up," or "I don't think this will work out," aren't closing statements, but sound like openings to negotiate or bargain. Instead, statements like, "I need for us to break up," "I feel we've tried all the ways to fix this without results, so I need to be finished, and I want to split up now," or even "I'm breaking this off with you," or "I'm leaving this relationship," are better.
Don't backpedal if a partner becomes upset or angry, or if they say they refuse to accept a breakup. We sometimes have readers tell us a boyfriend or girlfriend won't "let" them break up: the thing is, when one person leaves, that's not a choice anymore, just like if we're playing ping-pong with someone and they leave the table, we can't keep playing, even if we want to. Stick to your aim to breakup. You can acknowledge the other person is upset and apologize for causing them any pain, but if you've come to break up, you need to remember that you're done, the time for trying to fix things is past, and keep that very clear.
Own your own stuff, including this choice. You are choosing to break up, based on what you want and need. No one is making you do these things: they're your choice. So, now's not the time to go on about what the other person did or didn't do, why they suck or how they could be better: if you're splitting up, you've probably already gone round that carousel. One or both of you are probably going to be hurting when this goes down, so anything that is or feels like a personal attack will only make you and the other person feel worse when you already feel bad enough: you want to do a split with as much care and kindness as possible. Whatever happened in the past is in the past: you're making a move towards your future, regardless of what the other person did or didn't do.
Don't make promises: A breakup isn't the time to talk about what kind of relationship you'll have later, or about if you might get back together some other time or in some other way. What you're doing right now is finishing the relationship as it stands. Talking about future maybes when you're breaking up only makes a breakup feel confusing for everyone, and is something that can keep people from having a finality they need to let go and move forward. People also tend to feel differently about what they want post-breakup a few days, weeks or years later than they do in the moment. And if and when promises made don't come to pass -- as they often won't -- it can double the heartbreak.
If later down the road, you want to talk together about a friendship, or revisiting the possibility of trying again with a romance, you can do that later.
Be sure to make space for yourself and give them space after a breakup. Even if you're going to try to be friends, or if you've got some loose ends left to tie up, it's best to give everyone at least a few weeks on their own, without contact, to grieve and process.
Sometimes someone you're breaking up with will want to try and get all their resolution done right there and then, or want you to go over ever detail of why you're breaking up with them. That's usually not so sound, but you can find some middle ground that's respectful to both of you and that also helps them save some face. Acknowledge what they want is important and that you respect their feelings and wishes, but make clear that now isn't the best time for that. You can tell them you'd be happy to arrange a time to do that if they still want it in a few weeks, when you've both had some separation first.
Don't make friends pick sides or put them in the middle. The longer you've been in a relationship with someone, or the smaller your peer circle, the more likely it is that you'll share friends, which can be awkward for everyone for a while. But making friends pick sides isn't cool, nor is making them part of your breakup, like having them deliver the news or return someone's stuff. Try and be fair about mutual friendships and find ways to manage them gracefully, and keep your breakup between and about the two of you, rather than dragging your friends into it.
Be nice. Acknowledge the good stuff that was part of your relationship to the other person. Even if things are tense or strained by the time you break up, do your best to just thank someone for contributing the good things they did and for spending part of their life with you. Even if you want to take the low road, or the other person is hitting below the belt, you're likely to feel a lot better in the long run if you stay on the high road.
Even when choosing to move on or make a major change feels like the best thing we can do, that doesn't mean we'll feel happy about it. Letting go of relationships is often hard, even when they're not good for us anymore. Moving from one phase of our life to another, radically changing who is and isn't in our lives are big changes that tend to drum up big feelings. If you feel sad, you get to be sad. Take care of yourself: even a wanted breakup usually isn't all you'll need for self-care after a relationship tanks. Lean on people in your life who support you, give yourself time to grieve, and do whatever you tend to do to process tough feelings and baby yourself when you've gone through something painful.
Don't forget: it's okay not to do this perfectly. Speaking as someone who learned a lot of these things the hard way and imagines she'll always be learning still, with blunders made on both sides and probably more to come, you're probably going to make your own mistakes or be at the receiving end of someone else's. A piece like this isn't something I write with the expectation you're going to read it and do everything just right. The aim is to help you with these decisions and enacting them, hoping to spare you some mistakes, but knowing you're likely to make some, too, just like the rest of us have and probably will again.
Even when we really mess up with a breakup, we can often create an opportunity to make amends with someone: to tell them we're sorry, to take responsibility where we should and to make it all a little better by sharing how we realized we did it wrong.
None of these choices are written in stone. If you're making a choice to stay and that winds up feeling wrong, you can make another choice to break up. If you're choosing to split, that doesn't have to be a final choice, either: you can always try renewing a relationship later on in life if you want. The idea that if we break up once we're shutting the door on the possibility of ever being together is fatalistic: some people take second tries at relationships months, years or even decades later, and sometimes that second time goes way better than the first because of time and space taken in between. If and when we and someone else are super-important to each other, we rarely get just one shot.
Leaving can also be liberating. When leaving is about making a choice to move away from what makes you or someone else unhappy or stuck, and towards what makes you or the other person more happy or gives you room to grow, that's a powerful, positive thing.
Be sure you give yourself credit for being able to make a hard choice to do what you felt was best. Leaving is active, not passive, and often involves taking positive risks. It takes assertiveness, self-reliance, courage and a real investment in ourselves and our lives. Before you got to this, you likely also invested care, energy, time and difficult emotional work in trying to resolve conflict in different ways. Those are great big deals and you deserve props for them.
Lastly, know that it's very unusual for anyone to have only one relationship in their life that's important, even if right now you're 300% sure this is or has been the only person you will ever love or feel this strongly about. What's far more common is for people to have at least several major connections, including romantic relationships, which are or were all big in their own unique way during the time of life we had them: very few relationships we've had will ever have been a waste of time. All the relationships we have tend to contribute to and build on each other and become part of who we do. Even if and when something doesn't turn out how we'd have liked or wanted and we have to let go of a relationship we wanted to hang on to, we'll tend to find the things we learned and experienced in it stay with us.