Should You Break Up or Stay Together?

Signs your relationship can (not) be saved

 

A thought cloud with a castle in front of a rainbow

One of the hardest dilemma’s I’ve come across in my life has always been “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” Whether it’s leaving a school, a job, a friendship, or a relationship – leaving is scary! Especially because of that voice whispering “What if…?” in the back of your mind. And since leaving is usually messier than staying, we often try to exhaust all possible options before eventually surrendering to the conclusion: it’s best to leave. And few stay-or-go dilemmas are as tough as when you’re in a relationship and thinking of ending things. I’m guessing you’re haven’t made up your mind just yet (otherwise, you probably wouldn’t be reading this), so I’d like to offer you the signs I’ve discovered through the years that a relationship is worth staying with. And some signs that it’s best to leave.

In any unhappy relationship, the problem is usually that at least one person’s needs aren’t met. An important question is why. Personally, I distinguish 3 types of reasons, and each tells you something important about whether your relationship has a future. The first type is ‘external circumstances’, the second type is ‘personality-based’ and the third type is ‘skill-based’.

Will the circumstances change?

Sometimes, your needs aren’t met because of the circumstances. Maybe one of the partners has a particularly demanding job, is taking care of their relatives, or is suffering from an illness, and simply can’t act in a way the other person needs to feel good about the relationship. Now just because circumstances are external, it doesn’t follow that the relationship will be okay. If the circumstances are external, the next question is: are they temporary, and if so – do you expect them to be resolved within a timeframe that’s acceptable for you to have your needs met?

I’ll give you an example. Your partner never wants to have sex anymore because they are super stressed about everything they have on their plate. Maybe this is because they have an important project going on that will be done in a few months, but maybe it’s because they systematically take on too much work. You’re probably the best person to evaluate whether the circumstances of your relationship are likely to change for the better in a near (enough) future.

If you’re unsure, ask yourself whether the circumstances have changed in the past. If the circumstances haven’t changed for a long time and there is no clear reason to assume that they suddenly will – assume they won’t.

In my experience, it’s generally easy for people to place the blame for a situation outside of themselves, with external circumstances. However, when you’re trying to figure out whether it’s best for you to leave, the question is not whether your partner is guilty or blameless. Even if your partner has the best intentions, you might still conclude a relationship isn’t for you. Your partner’s innocence is not a reason to stay.

Can you both be happy at the same time?

Often, I see couples (if you’re in a relationship dynamic with more than 2 people involved, feel free to interpret ‘couple’ broadly) play tug of war in trying to have their needs met. A common fight is between safety and freedom – one partner craves reassurance, while the other craves autonomy. But I’ve seen other examples as well – partners who want to live together, but in different cities, or even countries. Partners who want kids vs. those who don’t. And so on.

These are what I call personality-based issues. They are issues based on who you are and what you want from life. Again, just because you’re having this type of issues, it doesn’t follow that you can’t be happy together. But there’s a relatively simple (though not necessarily easy) way to tell, and it’s this: if each of you is being perfectly honest, can you think of an outcome / imaginary situation where you are all happy and none of you is resentful or unhappy because of important unmet needs? I should add that if the answer is yes, you all have to be on board about this solution. You can’t decide what would make your partner happy – only they can do that.

However, if you both can imagine this type of situation, you can look for ways to get there. This means that your relationship has the potential to work out – as long as you manage to get to this solution.

Both in exploring possible solutions, and in figuring out ways to make them happen, professional help might be a big help. If you’re not quite there yet but you’d like to explore what each of you needs and wants, we have a couple of card decks to help you out.

Sometimes, the conclusion is that there is no solution. This is incredibly painful, and might take some time to accept. But it happens. If this is the case, it’s usually best to part ways. Although the love you feel for each other can still be overwhelming, you’ll find that in time, each of you will find easier and more authentic happiness.

I’ve had a relationship where we’ve experienced both types of problems. At one point, my then-partner and I decided to buy a home together, but we couldn’t settle on a neighborhood. He preferred something modern in the suburbs, while I wanted something hip, like a loft. We eventually settled on a renovated house from the 30s in an upcoming neighborhood close to the city center – it had both the luxury and space my partner wanted and the location and style I was looking for.

 

A short while later, we ran into unsurmountable obstacles – I wanted to explore, to try new things, to travel by myself. Although he tried his best to support me, eventually we realized that my need for freedom would always feel unsafe and unfulfilling to him. We still loved each other, but we decided to part ways. Six months later, we sold the house. He bought a house in the suburbs, I rented a storage and moved into a van. A few years later, each of us was much happier with partners – and lifestyles – that fit each of us much better.

Can you do better?

A third type of problem is skill-based. Sometimes, we want the same (or at least mostly the same) things, and we’re doing our best to make it work. But we don’t have the knowledge, skills, and insights to solve our issues quite yet. If you find that the things you say or do don’t quite match with what you want to be saying or doing, odds are at least a part of your problems is skill based. The good news: if the person whose skills need to be improved to make things better (usually this is not just one person) is willing to truly put in the work – you have all the odds of making your relationship work. However, if you find that self-help books and Instagram simply aren’t cutting it, do seek professional help.

And of course, often, it’s about more than one type of issue. Many couples start therapy looking to resolve skill based issues, such as communication problems, only to discover deeper incompatibilities.

In the end, a relationship is not the start, but the logical conclusion of the people you are. Each of you has needs and boundaries that aren’t negotiable – they are what makes you you. And as long as the person you are can be honored in the relationship you’re in, it can be worth fighting for. But if you feel like staying is a sacrifice of who you are or who you want to be, know this: it’s okay to leave. 

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