Sometimes, break ups are obvious. Signs build over time and become impossible to ignore, or something big happens and it’s clear that the relationship should end. But other times, break ups are a little more uncertain. Things feel fine, sort of. Maybe you still feel in love, but you want different things. Maybe you want the same things, but don’t feel in love. Maybe you’re wondering whether it’s possible to grow or take the next steps in your life with this other person in it. Or maybe you just don’t want to be in a relationship with your partner anymore. But how do you know? Here’s when you should think about breaking up with your partner.

You Want Different Things

When Should You Break Up With Your Partner?

Sometimes, parting ways is clearer, even if it’s painful. Differences around having kids, where to live, or what your relationship looks like can mean it’s time to separate, even if it’s difficult or terrifying. You know what you’re capable of and which sacrifices you’re willing to make for your partnership – and which you aren’t. 

If you want different things, conscious uncoupling might be on the horizon.

You Don’t Feel Good When You’re Together

When Should You Break Up With Your Partner?

Feeling anxious, neglected, run over, not seen, and not heard in your relationship are all good reasons to end it. If you’ve talked about how you want your relationship to look and the conversations are going nowhere, it might be time to try therapy or to end things. 

For a relationship to evolve, everyone in it has to be willing to change it. If you just don’t want to put in the work, and just don’t want to be with your partner, don’t be with your partner.

The Four Horsemen of The Relationship Apocalypse Have Shown Up

When Should You Break Up With Your Partner?

Constantly criticizing your partner? Disgusted by their presence? Shutting down around them, or intentionally closing yourself off? Super defensive about your behavior, without taking any responsibility for it? You’re facing what Dr. John Gottman termed the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse: contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness. All indicate that it’s time to break up. For example, people who should stay with their partners generally don’t lose their minds when their partner chews near them or shows them a meme or breathes loudly.

Contempt, the most destructive of the four, is the number one predictor of divorce. Mocking your partner, being hostile, rolling your eyes, name calling, and mimicking are all ways contempt can manifest. It indicates disgust towards your partner, or that you feel superior to them, and can be emotionally destructive.

Criticism is an attack on your partner or their character. It’s not voicing a valid complaint within the relationship, which is okay, but rather is about making whatever’s wrong your partner’s intrinsic fault. For instance, if your partner leaves the stove on and melts a saucepan, a complaint would look like, “I was scared when I walked in and everything smelled like scorched metal – I thought we agreed to be careful when we cook.” A criticism would look like, “You’re so thoughtless and irresponsible, we could have died, you never pay attention!”

Stonewalling is when you withdraw from the conversation due to emotional overwhelm and shut yourself off from your partner. You might turn away physically or emotionally and start to fuck around on your phone, clean the stove, sort the laundry – anything to give yourself an out or disengage.

Defensiveness happens when you see any feelings your partner might have about your behavior as a personal attack, and you get defensive rather than taking responsibility for your own behavior. For instance, if your partner points out you left the stove on and they felt scared about that, a defensive response would be, “No I didn’t.”  

Any relationship might sometimes have some of the horsemen, but when they’re all together, it might be time to end things before your relationship gets even worse. (You can; address them together – but you both have to want to do so.)

You Just Want to Break Up

When Should You Break Up With Your Partner?

If you want to leave your partner, leave your partner. That doesn’t mean you leave the second it gets hard, or that you never commit to begin with, or that you string someone alone endlessly while you figure out what you want. It means that if you want to go more than you want to stay, then go. But it doesn’t mean you get to be an asshole on the way out. 

In a classic Dear Sugar column, Cheryl Strayed writes, “Leaving a relationship because you want to doesn’t exempt you from your obligation to be a decent human being. You can leave and still be a compassionate friend to your partner. Leaving because you want to doesn’t mean you pack your bags the moment there’s strife or struggle or uncertainty. It means that if you yearn to be free of a particular relationship and you feel that yearning lodged within you more firmly than any of the other competing and contrary yearnings are lodged, your desire to leave is not only valid, but probably the right thing to do. Even if someone you love is hurt by that.”

No one will give you permission to go. If you want to go, you have to give yourself permission. You and your partner deserve better.