This article first appeared on Mind Body Green:

Buoyed by the success of our first collaboration, I invited Carolyn Byrne (a matrimonial attorney) and Aimee Hartstein (a marriage therapist) to join me (a dating coach) for lunch again.  

On the table for discussion was a question that a friend had posed to me the week prior: 

How do you know when it is time to leave a relationship?

My friend had been dating his girlfriend for six years.  While he loves her deeply, he is exhausted by their constant battles.  He feels unable to please her; as a result, his motivation to keep working on the relationship is waning.  

His concerns echo those of many other couples in a similar pattern:  

  • How much is too much when it comes to hard work and sacrifice?  
  • What is the line between a healthy relationship (that requires diligence and patience) and an unhealthy union (that feels like an uphill slog)?  
  • How do you determine when a relationship has run its course?

Given Aimee and Carolyn’s experience with hundreds of happy and unhappy couples, I welcomed their professional insight.  We collectively agree that relationships require work.  In meeting our partner’s needs and asserting our own, we are forced to work through conflict. We learn about ourselves, discover our needs and (hopefully) grow into our greatest potential—all very positive things.  But, when incompatibilities are too great, it may be time to re-evaluate.  

“The decision to leave a relationship can take months (or even years) to process,” said Aimee, the marital therapist.  “There’s usually an inner process of dealing with a slew of uncomfortable emotions—guilt, sadness, disloyalty, obligation, fear and relief.  At the same time, there is the outer process of dealing with a partner on a day-to-day basis.”  

Knowing the emotional devastation that a break-up can wreak, we created the following list of questions that every person should ask when debating the end of a long-term relationship:

1.    Is our sex life satisfying?  

Sex is a very healthy and important component of a relationship.  Sex provides pleasure, fun, release and relaxation.  Further, sex can lessen tension and forge deeper intimacy between partners.  

While there is no objective standard for the “right” amount of sex, the most important factor is that both partners feel satisfied with the type and frequency of their sexual encounters.  For example, a low-sex partnership may be perfectly healthy, but only if neither partner takes issue.  In the alternative, if one partner’s needs are being unfulfilled, a low sex (or no sex) marriage may indicate larger, more deeply entrenched emotional problems within the relationship.

2.    Are we still laughing?

Relationships do require work, but they should also have a healthy balance of joy, fun, and connection.  “In even the best relationships, couples will get on one another’s nerves.  But, an ability to laugh and make light of the situation, including poking fun of themselves and each other, goes a long way,” said marital therapist Aimee.  

Is your relationship is overwhelmingly dramatic and tiring?  Does your time together devolve into crying fights?  Do small misunderstandings lead to big blow-ups?  If the majority of your interactions are negative, it is a bad sign.  

3.    Do we resolve conflict in a healthy manner?

While too much fighting is unhealthy, a lack of conflict may also be a bad sign.  “If each partner is too polite and tiptoeing around the other, there is a lack of communication and a repression of honest emotion—both of which are detrimental to the relationship,” said Carolyn, the matrimonial attorney.

Instead, resolve to fight fair.  Focus on the resolution of the underlying issue (including, when necessary, an agreement to disagree) in a manner that leaves both parties feeling respected.  Name-calling, back-handed compliments, eye-rolling, and sarcastic, pointed-jabs all wreak as much emotional damage as a slap in the face.  Second-guess any relationship where you and your partner either do not conflict or cannot agree on fundamental rules for engagement.

4.    Are we each other’s #1 priority?

Effie and Matt have been dating for 5 years.  Effie is tied to her family and their opinion.  She runs home every time she and Matt fight.  She asks her mother and sister’s opinion on every small and large detail of her and Matt’s life together, from what they should eat for dinner to when they should have children. 

In a serious, long-term relationship the couple forms a new family.  Their loyalty to one another should take precedence over all others, including their family of origin.  “I have many patients where a partner has technically left home, but metaphorically is still unseparated from his parents.  This separation is necessary for a person to know who he is and to become a fully-developed person.  It is part of the growth and maturation necessary for a good relationship,” said marital therapist Aimee.

5.    Do we have a common vision about our future?

Deidre is one of 7 children and always dreamt of having a large and boisterous clan of her own.  Although Gary was raised in a large family, he enjoys his quiet and orderly life.  When they fell in love, Gary steamrolled ahead with their relationship, despite a nagging voice about this glaring discrepancy.  Now married, Gary is feeling pressured into a life he doesn’t want; Deidre feels cheated out of a future she had discussed openly. 

“Many people think they will change their partner.  If someone tells you something about themselves, my advice is to listen and take it to heart,” said divorce lawyer Carolyn.  

Does your partner want a long-term, monogamous relationship?  Do they want kids?  Are their long-terms goals in sync with yours?  Take an honest appraisal of the relationship for what it is, not what you want it to be.  

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