As a Denver marriage counseling and online couples therapy “relationship expert” I often speak to people seeking relationship advice about matters of the heart. Knowing when keep trying, or when to call it quits in a relationship is always confusing. Even in a fundamentally strong relationship, when your relationship has been feeling hard it's absolutely normal to have doubts and wonder when to end a relationship. You might wonder whether you're compatible with your partner, or whether your relationship can be saved.
But if your relationship has been feeling frustrating, painful and unsatisfying for a long time — to the point where the relationship problems are starting to feel permanent fixtures — you might start asking yourself things like, “When is it time to break up?” Or, “When is it time to divorce?” Figuring out whether your relationship can improve or when it's time to call it quits in a relationship is often the first step in knowing what to do, one way or another.
On this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast we're taking a deep dive into the different situations that lead couples and individuals to wonder whether it's time to throw in the towel and get a divorce, or if not, how to begin the long road of repair. Skip to the bottom of this post to access the podcast player and comments section, or scroll through for a few more insights and tips that may resonate with you if you're trying to figure out how to know when it's time to break up. — LMB
“Is My Relationship Over?”
All couples, even the most happy, fundamentally healthy and compatible couples will always be confronted by things that challenge them to grow as people. Most of the time, these opportunities first emerge as “relationship conflict.” Deep down, these moments are simply an chance to reflect on who you are, whether or not your current relationship skill set is working for you, and how you can make positive changes that benefit you, your partner and your family.
But these opportunities do not look like inviting “growth moments” that are framed so clearly. No. What they usually look and feel like are ongoing, sometimes even nasty and hurtful conflict between you and your partner.
Most people are not aware of their “relationship growth opportunities” as they start butting heads with their partner, and getting feedback about things that are being perceived as hurtful or unloving. Instead they feel angry, defensive, attacked, or hurt. (And often express that, passionately). It is not obvious or intuitive in these moments that the frustration, hurt and annoyance can be a doorway to growth.
In reality, most couples can't calm down enough and shift into a space of intentional understanding when they're feeling triggered and upset. Not on their own anyway. They just go round and round, until someone eventually withdraws. [Read more about the joys of “Emotional Flooding.”] But if a couple can get involved in meaningful growth work together, ideally, an evidence-based form of couples therapy conducted by a legitimate relationship expert, all of a sudden that constant conflict reveals a treasure of new awarenesses, unhelpful old patterns just begging to be released, the chance to heal old wounds, new experiences that help you understand each other on a whole new level, and motivation to learn new communication skills and emotional intelligence strategies that will empower you in every aspect of your life — including your most important relationship.
There is so much opportunity. But couples only have this aspect of conflict revealed to them when they are in a safe space and being guided by a skillful and knowledgeable marriage counseling or couples therapy expert who knows what they are doing. (Sadly, most don't.)
But most relationships fail without ever having had the chance to do this kind of meaningful growth work together. They never get to learn and grow. They never get instruction and support around how to do things differently. Instead, couples fall into predictable, increasingly negative patterns of relationship conflict and then wind up making decisions about when to call it quits in a relationship because they haven't been able to make positive changes on their own. They don't see the path forward so they assume that the only solution to their relationship problems is the “final solution” of divorce or breaking up. And that's really too bad.
So if you are asking yourself questions like, “When is it time to break up?” or “When to call it quits on a relationship” because of ongoing unresolved relationship conflict, and feeling stuck in a “pro and con” list, or feeling anxious about whether to get divorced, try this instead: Ask yourself a different question. Ask, “Is meaningful growth and change possible for us?”
Also, remember that it’s absolutely normal and expected for couples in distressed relationships to be (any combination of) hostile, emotionally unavailable, withdrawn, blaming, avoidant, passive-aggressive, not following through with household obligations, not meeting expectations, and generally being hurtful and annoying. People in distressed relationships do all of these things because their relationships are distressed.
So then the question next question becomes not “Should I end my relationship based on what is happening right now?” but rather, “If we were both feeling loved and respected in this relationship, and learned how to communicate, manage expectations, work as a team, etc., how could our relationship be different?”
If you're like many people the immediate answer is, “NO! Not possible. I've told him 500 times how I feel and he always gets defensive and it never changes so we cannot grow. No.” That is often a reflexive answer based on the experiences you've had to-date, and often based on how your partner is functioning in the context of a distressed relationship. (i.e., Not their best selves!)
When I sit with my Denver therapy or online life coaching clients and really unpack this with them the true answer is more like,
“I don't really know yet whether or not growth is possible for us. We are angry with each other. I haven't been my best self either. We've never been in a situation where we worked with a relationship expert who used an evidence-based model to help us understand each other and ourselves, and who taught us new skills and strategies, and who held us accountable for making changes.”
If that is the case for you, too, the first step in getting clarity about whether you should call it quits is to find out for sure whether or not change is possible. Then you will be able to move forward with clarity and confidence, one way or the other.
When To Give Up On a Relationship
Of course, for some couples, growth and change is not possible. How do you know for sure if it's time to break up, or when it's time to divorce? Your answer lies in the action.
- When you make a sincere effort to get you and your partner into a meaningful growth opportunity…. and they refuse to go.
- Or, even if you meet with an effective, evidence-based online marriage counselor or Denver couples therapist together, your partner will not participate in a deep level. They might show up for the appointments but they may continue to blame you, engage in gaslighting, and deny any responsibility for the issues.
- When the marriage counselor invites them to share their perceptions of the problem, your partner may give voice to a perspective grounded in an absolute lack of empathy for yours.
- They may flatly reject any efforts of the couples therapist to help them unpack their feelings, or make links between what they learned in their families of origin, and how they are showing up in their relationship.
- Furthermore, they may not be coachable, meaning that they are not open to learning new skills or trying to do things differently for the benefit of the relationship.
- They may show you, through their behaviors, that they are more committed to continuing their own negative patterns than they are to staying married to you.
As frustrating as this is, it's also okay. Positive, even. Because then you know for sure that this relationship is over. There is no hope. Nothing can change. It may not be the answer you wanted, but it's an answer you can use to find solid ground and make a new plan for your life. You are free to go and find peace, love, and understanding elsewhere.
When To End a Relationship Vs. When To Grow?
Of course, when considering when to call it quits in a relationship there are additional complexities above and beyond the need to figure out whether or not growth is possible. For example, if you are married with a crush on someone else (or having an affair) it can cast a lot of doubt and confusion on your relationship. It would be to your benefit (and to the benefit of your spouse, honestly) for YOU to get involved in individual therapy or effective life coaching in order to get clarity about your next steps. Only if you're committed to your relationship will any change be possible, and if you have an emotional attachment to someone else, it makes it really hard to work on your relationship.
When You're Feeling Trapped In a Relationship
Another reality for many people is the experience of feeling trapped in a relationship due to practical circumstances, like co-parenting, financial inequities, or concerns about housing. If you want to leave your marriage but feel that you can't due to concerns about how you'll make it on your own, or if you have concerns for your children that lead you to stay, it's important that you enlist the support of a professional therapist, life coach, or career coach to help you set meaningful goals and make a sustainable plan to move forward. (Even if it's a long-term plan.)
When To Call It Quits In a Relationship… Or Not
Because all of these questions are often complicated and difficult to sort through, they’re worthy of exploration and discussion. If you’ve been twisting yourself into knots trying to figure out when to call it quits in a relationship, I hope you find some comfort in the knowledge that its extremely difficult to find a clear “stay or go” answer in the context of a messy, multifaceted situation. The answer to the question of whether to break up or stay together is often, honestly, “it depends.”
Whether or not to end a relationship often depends on whether growth is possible (or not), for your partner. But it may also depend on whether or not growth is possible for you, too. It also often depends on what external or internal factors are creating barriers that make you feel forced to stay in an unhappy relationship. There may also be emotional factors at play that make you feel like you should stay in the relationship… even though in your heart of hearts you might not want to.
No matter what you ultimately decide, whether to end your relationship or whether to attempt a new chapter, the path forward is always first getting clarity about what is possible… and what is not. Only with that clarity can you have the confidence to take action — action that feels like it’s connected with your highest values and personal integrity — one way or the other. The process of getting this clarity can take weeks, months, sometimes even years. It may involve you and your partner working together to get this clarity. It may involve just you educating yourself, and giving yourself the time and space to do some individual growth work.
To help you get clarity on the variables that may impact your decision about whether to call it quits in a relationship, or whether to try to foster a relationship growth experience, I’ve devoted an entire episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast on the topic of how to figure out when to break up or stay together.
I’ll be addressing specific questions to help you figure out whether you should end your relationship, or keep trying like:
- How can you tell whether growth is possible for your relationship, or whether it really needs to end?
- Why do couples wind up breaking up prematurely, without knowing or not whether growth was actually possible?
- What are specific indications that your partner, if given meaningful and effective opportunities to change, is able or willing to do so?
- What are the signs that there is no hope for this relationship, and that is time to divorce or break up?
- What are the sneaky, toxic relationship signs that can lead you to stay stuck in a relationship that is fundamentally not good for you, and unlikely to change?
- What are the growth opportunities that YOU might need to engage in, in order to feel more clear and confident about your commitment to your current relationship…. Or more clear and confident that it’s time to end your relationship?
- What if you want to break up or divorce, but are stuck because you feel guilty about it?
- How do you handle leaving a relationship if your partner has a problem like a mental health issue, substance use disorder, or other issues?
- What to do if you’re unhappy in your relationship and would like to divorce, but are facing practical realities such as co-parenting concerns or financial consequences if you separate?
All that, plus more insights, thought provoking questions, and actionable advice to support your path forward, whether it's time to reach for hope and growth… or time to call it quits.
All the best,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
PS: Resources discussed on this episode include a link to my online “How Healthy Is Your Relationship Quiz” as well as www.thehotline.org.