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 this time was a question that a friend had posed to me the week prior: how do you know when it is the right 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 fighting. He feels unable to please her, and his motivation to keep working on the relationship is waning.
His concerns echo those of many other couples facing a similar pattern, often expressed in the following questions:
- 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. One thing's for sure: reaching the decision to end a relationship is a process. “The decision to leave a relationship can take months (or even years) to process,” explained Aimee, the marital therapist. “There’s usually an inner process of dealing with guilt, sadness, disloyalty, obligation, fear and relief." Amid these emotions is, of course, dealing with your partner on a day-to-day basis. It's not easy.
Knowing the emotional devastation that a breakup can wreak, we created the following list of questions that every person should ask when debating whether to end a long-term relationship:
1. Is our sex life satisfying?
Sex is a very important component of a relationship. Especially in times of emotional tension, sex brings things back to the physical, providing an opportunity to alleviate 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. A low-sex partnership may be perfectly healthy, but only if neither partner wants more.
2. Are we still laughing?
Relationships require work, but they should also have a healthy balance of joy, fun, connection and even silliness. “Even in the best relationships, couples will get on one another’s nerves," explained marital therapist Aimee. An ability to laugh and make light of the situation can be tremendously powerful.
So ask these further questions: Is your relationship is overwhelmingly dramatic and tiring? Does your time together devolve into crying fights? Do small misunderstandings lead to big blowups? If the majority of your interactions are negative, it may be 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," 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. Second-guess any relationship where you and your partner either do not conflict whatsoever, or cannot agree on fundamental rules for engagement.
4. Are we each other’s #1 priority?
Consider the following example: Effie and Matt have been dating for five 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.
Each partner's loyalty to one another should take precedence over all others, including their family of origin. One's separation from his or her parents is an essential barometer of that person's maturity and ability to renegotiate priorities based on different developmental scenarios.
5. Do we have a common vision about our future?
Another example for this one: Deidre is one of seven children and always dreamed 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 steamrollered ahead with their relationship. Now married, Gary is feeling pressured into a life he doesn’t want; Deidre feels cheated out of a future she had discussed openly.
"If someone tells you something about themselves, my advice is to listen and take it to heart,” said divorce lawyer Carolyn. After all, it's impossible to change your partner, or anyone else but yourself, for that matter.
Be honest with yourself. Does your partner want a long-term, monogamous relationship? Do they want kids? Are their long-terms goals in sync with yours?
For each of these questions above, take an honest appraisal of the relationship for what it is, not what you want it to be.
For further insight and to take the free quiz “25 Questions to Rate Your Compatibility” click here.
Monica Parikh co-wrote this post with Carolyn Byrne and Aimee Hartstein. Byrne is an attorney with 16 years of experience, dedicated exclusively to matrimonial law. Hartstein is a licensed psychotherapist with 20 years of experience, specializing in relationship and couples counseling.
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