As that crystal globe cascaded down in Times Square not long ago, did you find yourself dogged by the nagging feeling that something was fatally wrong with your relationship? Like maybe 2013 would be the year it draws its last breath? The New Year customarily leads us to focus more on our goals and dreams and the ways we are not achieving them.
Circumstances that are not meeting our needs, especially intimate relationships, seem to beg that much more loudly for resolution — especially if you’ve invested a lot of time and emotional energy in your marriage or romantic partnership. However, it can be hard to know when to pull the plug. The tendency to hang on too long was a personal foible of my own for many years. Here are five obvious signs it’s either time to call it quits or begin working like hell to regroup and rebuild.
You’ve stopped trying to make things better
The research has shown that it’s not the number of arguments, but the result of efforts we make to redirect or buffer those conflicts, which clearly identifies those people headed for divorce. Spouses who say or do something to de-escalate an argument or salve their partner’s wounds are significantly more likely to make it for the long haul, and the same principle applies for any romantic relationship.
A few examples of “repair attempts” are using self-deprecating humor to assume responsibility for thoughtless or hurtful behavior (e.g., “there I go being an idiot again!”) to grabbing his/her hand as a discussion is getting increasingly heated. When your wife or girlfriend gives you a “whatever” look in response, she is tacitly rejecting your efforts to improve the situation. And when both of you routinely jump headlong into an escalating battle without either partner making this kind of reparative effort, that’s a clear sign the end is near.
You’re living separate lives
You’ve stopped caring about each other’s daily lives, and you no longer share much more than the most mundane of objectives. For those married with kids, most of the conversation now revolves around childcare, homework and what you need from the grocery store. You’ve largely stopped checking in with each other except in a polite way to see how your days are going and if anything special is happening.
You no longer feel a strong desire to spend time together as a couple. You may even have lost the desire to spend time together as a family. There can be a fair amount of silent time when you are together, which feels more like mere coexistence.
Your emotional support lies elsewhere
Your husband or boyfriend is no longer the person you go to first with an issue that warrants discussion. While women frequently have a best friend they may seek out even before their husband or boyfriend, it’s definitely a problem if you’re not consulting him at all when you need to vent or find a solution. The drive to share positives and celebrate success with him is likewise another important sign of relationship health. When that begins to fade, it is a significant sign that you don’t consider him central to your support system and things are on their way out.
Sex life at a standstill
When your sense of closeness has undergone considerable deterioration, it is very unusual for there to be a lot of sex either. Physical intimacy generally follows the emotional. This can consist of both people being so alienated from each other that no one initiates sex, neither person has much desire, or one partner continues to seek out the other but gets rebuffed much of the time.
In this latter scenario, the chronically rebuffed partner will eventually give up or simply feel resentful and frustrated much of the time. If you’re married or have lived together a long time, you may find yourself sleeping in separate bedrooms. Of course, any of these circumstances can become fertile ground for infidelity to occur.
You dream about your ideal relationship
And how it differs from the one you are in. You find it gives you some relief and hope to be thinking about what you want in the future. You look at other couples and fantasize about how they have a great relationship. Perhaps being around couples you perceive as happier and closer than you makes you feel a little uncomfortable. You may even fantasize about past relationships, particularly if your partner was the one to initiate a breakup that you did not want. You may have a lot of thoughts of self-blame or blame your current partner for the current state of affairs.
In my experience, an intimate relationship can be revived even from the kind of deterioration portrayed in these scenarios. But both partners have to want it — and badly. Badly enough to stretch way outside their comfort zones and repair the deep rift of alienation that has occurred. And both must have a level of psychological health and self-awareness, which will allow them to look at themselves honestly, and respond to their partners with openness, compassion and forgiveness. It is a courageous decision to hang in and an equally courageous one to opt out and move on. In either case, use it as a springboard to become crystal clear about what you want in a relationship and for a more authentic connection with yourself and your own life.