How to Honestly Tell When It’s Time to Break Up

We’re revisiting this classic Autostraddle piece on queer dating as we get back to dating basics in partnership with HER’s Queer Dating 101, a series of live edutainment events that brings in concrete how-tos, insights, experts and some of your favorite Autostraddle personalities to help you find love (or whatever you’re looking for) in the time of corona. Check out the event on Sex and Relationships During COVID, TONIGHT,1/21/2021 at 6pm PT | 9pm ET!

It can feel impossibly difficult to tell whether something is really over or just a rough patch, even though it often seems CRYSTAL clear when it’s your friend, or your partner’s other partner, or the couple having a fight at the brunch spot. Sometimes it takes an outside perspective and an objective read on what’s going on to tell whether it’s healthiest to separate — which is why our team is here to tell you from experience when it’s time to go.

Bailey , Writer

If you’re feeling like you need to break up or take a break, you should trust your instincts. There were points in my last relationship where I really felt like we weren’t right for each other but chose to overlook. I never gave myself the space to reflect on pros and cons or how I truly felt whilst everything moved so fast. Looking back, there were so many red flags. My advice would be to always trust your instincts. If you don’t feel good in the company of your date/partner, if you feel unable to be your full self around them, if you doubt your compatibility with them, if you feel emotionally manipulated, if your feelings and reactions to things feel policed, trust those instincts.

danijanae , Writer

This one is hard because I’m the type to run away in a relationship. Generally, a good sign is the voice in your head saying “it’s time to break up.” When you aren’t on the same page anymore, when the physical intimacy is lacking, when you’re processing sessions become cyclical and mundane, if you leave their house crying every time, it’s time to break up. Another good one to look out for is not looking forward to or even dreading time spent together.

Heather Hogan, Senior Writer + Editor

As soon as someone’s behavior starts making you question your self-worth or your reality, it’s time to go.

When they’re no longer curious about the other person. When there’s a divestment from the other person’s growth.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Managing Editor

Does the relationship take more from you than it gives to you? It’s probably time to end it. All relationships require compromise, but they shouldn’t require sacrifice—at least not consistently. If you find yourself giving all of the time and never receiving, it’s time to go. On the other side of that, if you realize that YOU’RE the person who is always taking, you should probably leave your partner, but I’ve found that those people don’t usually have that self-awareness. Yes, relationships can be hard work, but they shouldn’t be so hard that it feels like work all the time.

Also, I just want to say that except in extreme circumstances, you should tread lightly when telling OTHER people to break up with their partners. It’s hard to really know the inner workings of others’ relationships, and in my experience, people don’t always listen to “dump them” directives and it can end up affecting friendships. If someone comes to you asking for the specific advice about whether to break up with someone, go for it.

Ro White, Sex & Dating Editor

It’s time to break up when you’re no longer enhancing each other’s independent lives. If all partners involved are only bring tension or drama to the relationship, you’re just holding each other back from fulfillment.

Rachel Lewis, Writer

I think a big sign is that you’ve become too codependent, and find it painful to do things separately. First of all, it’s just not hot to be with someone who is basically you at this point, but more importantly, you have to retain that independence. I think you can do that without breaking up – I believe in a break! – but I also think that if your partner leans waaaay too heavily on you, or just has no interest in widening their support system or growing because they expect you to do that heavy lifting, it’s time to go.

If you constantly view spending time with your partner as a chore to take care of and not as a source of joy or relief in your life, then do each other a favor and part ways. I don’t think there’s much you can do at that point. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in working things out and trying to salvage a relationship. But I think there’s a whole lot that needs to go wrong first before you get to the point where you’re grumbling about date night because you can’t stand spending time with your partner alone, or when every interaction with them leaves you drained or irritable. If you find that you generally don’t actively look forward to seeing your partner anymore, something needs to change. It might mean setting different boundaries, communicating openly about space and alone time, trying to resolve past resentments, or coming up with ways to add excitement to your relationship. But once you’re just completely tired of being around them, things aren’t looking so good anymore.

When someone is in a maintained state of indifference about the relationship even after it’s been mutually addressed that’s usually a big sign to me. Also if there’s more anxiety and conflict than connection and enjoyment for extended periods of time (cause sometimes there are just natural periods of distance) despite attempts to change course, it’s probably time.

Vanessa Friedman, Community Editor

When one or both or all people in the relationship start polling their friend group about when they think a breakup is necessary… that, to me, is a good sign that the relationship is not in a good place. I have seen this happen so many times! “When do you think it’s time for a couple to breakup?” “How do you know it’s the end?” Right now, babe! The end is right now!!! Extremely full disclosure, I almost always think everyone should break up (not because I don’t think y’all can work it out, but because I think we as a community have major scarcity issues and fears of dying alone so we tend to cling on to situations that really don’t serve anyone involved and end up causing pain and harm when we could be perusing joy and happiness with someone new or by ourselves), but I do think as soon as one person speaks the idea of a breakup into existence, the odds of it happening increase exponentially – and I probably think that’s a good thing!

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  1. having recently gone through a breakup that was a surprise to me, i read this with trepidation, but Vanessa’s words about scarcity were really helpful to hear.

  2. Hey Kayla! That line about sacrificing too much describes my last few relationships. I need to get way better about setting those boundaries, and maybe not living with incredibly needy people in the first place.

  3. As a caveat, I’ve never been in a relationship that lasted longer than about 15 months, but the moments my last 3 big relationships ended were:

    1) When I realized that we weren’t really dating, just good friends who shared an apartment and had sex once every couple months (which was not enough for me)

    2) When I realized that I’d been squirrelly about commitment for several months because I couldn’t see a future with her, in that city, dealing with issues she refused to confront

    3) When I realized that my long-distance partner and I weren’t even talking anymore, meaning that we weren’t really in a long-distance relationship – we were just two people in different cities who thought about each other sometimes

    • Even if you’re not fighting, even if no one is abusing anybody else, even if nobody cheated, even if you’re not even thinking about sleeping with someone else or moving to a new city… it’s okay to break up. That’s the big lesson I’ve learned the past couple years. Breaking up is not something horrible that you do to someone, or something horrible that someone else does to you. It’s just the end of something that maybe isn’t good anymore, because you both (or all) deserve something that is good.

      • Ugh, yes. My longest relationships still had *some* good in them so I kept trying to make them work for way too long

      • Thank you for saying this. My partner of 14 years and I are in the midst of negotiating (likely) breaking up. But there is no crisis or betrayal involved and I feel like that‘a hard to talk about.

    • It has been so long and there have been so many better and lovely relationships since then, but “When I realized that I’d been squirrelly about commitment for several months because I couldn’t see a future with her, in that city, dealing with issues she refused to confront” just slotted several things into place in my brain. and I love your next comment about how breaking up is “just the end of something that maybe isn’t good anymore, because you both (or all) deserve something that is good.”

      Such good sets of words! ty!

      (and your user name is fantastic!)

  4. Oh my. At this point I don’t think I’ll break up, but yesterday I was thinking about it. Just typing that out makes me feel badly. Reading Rachel’s article about just not and all of the smoothing over that I do to make things work, not to mention all of the work.

    • You have no reason to feel bad. You shouldn’t have to be doing all of the work. Can you bring it up? Do you think it’s realistic to expect that anything could change? If not, go out there and find your joy.

    • Rachel’s essay about Just Not has been rattling around in my head, too. For now I am experimenting with Just Not-ing (Just Not doing their share of the labor AND mine) and I am going to see if my partner picks up the slack.

    • That absolutely has kept me in my long-term relationships for far too long. And the fear of dying alone thing in our culture, with the way we currently structure healthcare and care work generally, is real

  5. “I think we as a community have major scarcity issues and fears of dying alone so we tend to cling on to situations that really don’t serve anyone involved and end up causing pain and harm when we could be perusing joy and happiness with someone new or by ourselves”

    I agree with this *and* also I want to say that the more marginalized and “undesirable” a queer person is, the more likely it is that they WILL die alone. I have watched so many queer people flock to pretty, thin, white, and/or non-disabled queers over and over and over, leaving queers who are “ugly,” fat, BIPOC, and/or disabled isolated as fuck.

    I have so much compassion for (and rage on behalf of) queers without social capital & desirability points, queers who are rarely or never treated well. In these systems of lookism, anti-fatness, racism, and ableism (among others), someone’s current mediocre relationship may very well be the best relationship they can get. Which is fucked.

    Also, being single can be great, yes. And, there is a difference between being single and being in the depths of isolation trying to reach out, only to be ignored because of people’s commitments to lookism, anti-fatness, racism, ableism, etc. That kind of isolation and touch starvation is a form of torture and can be deadly.

    • YES!! I loved being alone when it was a CHOICE ( not just in terms of ”romantic” relationships but generally). Now I’m isolated due to circumstance, in a disabled body that I just cannot get to grips with, and it’s all about as far from choices as you can get… and coupled with the ”why don’t you just” nonsense from people.. ARGH.

    • I have been in relationships with people that are fat, disabled, and a different race than myself. I cared deeply for all of them and chose to be with them because of who they are. (Also, liking someone in that sense tends to make them attractive to me anyway if that’s worth mentioning)
      I don’t think those are issues that leave people “undesirable”- it’s when someone has extreme insecurities.
      It’s exhausting to constantly validate someone (in an excessive manner) and can make the one providing validation feel as if there’s no way they can be a good enough partner to their loved one. I’m all for helping someone grow and seeing them succeed, but when someone is doing nothing to help themselves grow mentally/emotionally, what can you do after a point??

      Besides, if race/disability/body type is the reason you’ve been rejected – why would you want to be with the kind of person who would cast you aside on that judgement alone anyways?

  6. I recently broke up with someone I liked and enjoyed spending time with because she was extremely cagey and avoidant when it came to talking about feelings, our relationship, and her expectations or desires for the relationship/what she wanted. The lack of that made me feel and once or twice speak in a way that was bitter and sarcastic, and I couldn’t chart a way out of that dynamic without being able to talk to her about it.

    Me: “what are we doing here! I’ve tried a few directions and suggestions that you didnt bite at, and am curious what ideas you have about what we are to each other and how we relate and spend time together or cultivate closeness and affection.”
    Her: “our relationship can look like whatever we want!”
    Me: “yes! What do you want it to look like?!”
    Her: “so, weird thing at work today”…

    (Rinse and repeat several times over the course of a year)

  7. To “The Team”,

    All of you have clear, sound advice. I could have potentially saved myself a few difficult years had I discovered all of you sooner.

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