How to know when a relationship is over, according to a therapist

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You know that feeling… the one where you're either figuring out how to break up with someone or can sense a breakup is heading your way. It's not a fun place to be emotionally, and as such, you probably don't often talk about these limbo phases in relationships that are sticky and uncomfortable, instead focusing on the joyful aspects of a partnership, which are much easier on the heart.

So, how might you know when a relationship is over? Is it obvious or subtle? Is it specific to each relationship or widely universal? Are there telltale signs a relationship is over? How do you know if it's time to break up or if you're simply stuck in a rut? Go forth for answers to all your Qs.

What Does It Feel Like When You Need to End a Relationship?

Really, the answer to this question is simultaneously universal and highly specific to the situation.

Truthfully, when there are signs a relationship is over you might feel heavy, uneasy, confusing, messy, good, hopeful, tragic, and excited all at the same time. (Read: What It Was Like Going Through My First Polyamorous Breakup)

Imagine: You and your partner have been together for a while — long enough to be over the new relationship energy and short enough that you're still excited about each other. Although, the more that you have gotten to know one another, the more you feel off. Which feels confusing because you may still like this person a lot, and be attracted to them, so what is this feeling? Maybe it's a sense that your lifestyles have started to differ over time? Perhaps it's just that the newness is gone? Or maybe the initial passion died, and you're getting to know a new version of this person and your relationship?

Whatever the situation, an important sign that a relationship is over typically manifests as a specific feeling: a sense of unrest. 

Oftentimes, even if you are in a relationship rut or your relationship is changing, you may not feel unrest; you might just feel stuck. Unrest is the best word I can come up with to describe that specific feeling that signals you know something needs to change. That unrest is usually coupled with a sense of urgency — even if it's not apparent why you're feeling that urgency or what you should do about it yet. (Related: What to Do If You Feel Trapped In a Relationship)

How Do You Know When a Relationship Is Over?

For starters, I don't like the word "should," when it comes to discussing relationships. Something could be a "should" for one person, but not for someone else — it's too broad, doesn't give you any empowerment, and implies some force of hand or shame. So, you should know that, for the most part, there are no specific circumstances in which I'm going to say you should end a relationship.

With that being said, I will use the word "should" for one particular type of relationship: If you and your partner(s) are in a toxic relationship dynamic, you probably should break up. This can be a very complicated situation, especially if someone doesn't feel safe leaving their partner because they're in an abusive environment. (Read more here: Signs That a Partner Could Become Physically Abusive — and How to Get Out)

In all other relationships — where abuse isn't present — if your partner(s) is unwilling to communicate with you and have vulnerable, honest conversations about your relationship, you might want to consider breaking up. There will always be difficult conversations in relationships, but if someone is unwilling to hold space for those tough moments, your relationship will never grow and evolve — so, that might be a sign it's over.

Is there constant fighting and minimal resolution? This might be something to confront. One of the most brutal realities for relationships is realizing when they just aren't working. It's so hard when you feel that everyone involved has done whatever they can to make it work, and it's just not enough — but listen to your gut. Timing, communication, individual self-growth, trauma, and language tools play important roles in all relationships. Sometimes you can heal and grow with people, and sometimes it's not that simple — it's different for everyone and depends on the environment. 

Also, remember: Breakups don't mean failure. It's just as successful to leave a relationship that isn't for you as it is to be in one that is.

How to Deal with a Relationship Lull

Okay, so now you better understand what it feels like when the relationship is either ending or how to spot signs your relationship is over — but what if that doesn't feel like what's going on for you? If you don't want to end it, but things still feel off, what can you and your partner(s) do to get out of that rut? Follow these steps to assess and work through it, if that's what feels right.

Step 1: Identify what's going on.

Call it out. Name it. Bring it into the light. Ask point-blank if your partner is happy, content, satisfied. Sometimes the most challenging part is naming the problem. Being in a lull with your partner(s) is a peculiar experience because nothing is necessarily wrong. It can still feel complicated, uneasy, and a little weird, which is okay. Most relationships will experience a lull (sexually, romantically, or otherwise) at one time or another. This is natural, a bit inevitable, and you will likely get past it.

Now, if you know that this isn't just a rut and/or you don't want to work on it, you can end it. There are no rules for how long you need to work on a union (of any type, friendships included) if you know a relationship is over. If you or your partner are unhappy, you only need to decide if it's worth working on or not.

Step 2: Make sure you're in it together.

If you want to get out of the rut, make sure both partners are committed to the relationship and moving through this phase. This might feel like a scary conversation to go into, but it's so important to have these kinds of check-in conversations to make sure everyone is getting their needs met. (See: What Are the Love Languages, and Why Do They Matter?)

If your partner isn't open to working with you on the relationship, that's also information that can help determine if you want to stay together. If you're feeling alone in your relationship, communicate that — and a good partner will want you to feel companionship and care.

Step 3: Make a plan.

Okay, so you want to be together. Now what? Do you need to be more intentional about date nights? Are both of your needs being met? How is each person's mental health? Do you need to plan sex for a while to make sure it happens? What if you take turns planning surprise dates for each other? It doesn't need to be elaborate nor expensive. It could be a new sex toy, cooking a meal together, or playing a game. Anything that helps mix up your routine. (Also read: How to Build Intimacy with Your Partner)

Step 4: Be intentional with check-ins.

Keep checking in with each other and returning to this conversation or others that need to be had. Sometimes the most beneficial thing to do when you're stuck in a rut is to keep calling it out and taking little actions forward. And remember, it happens to everyone.

I'll say it again: The ending of a relationship doesn't mean the relationship failed — it means that it was a successful relationship for a period of time, but now it's over. Most relationships don't last forever, whether they're romantic, sexual, platonic, or any combination of those, and that is healthy and okay. 

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