Should We Break Up? 5 Factors to Consider Before Ending It

Rear view of person with short hair in buttondown shirt looking at young adult with long hair falling over face who sits, looking down at handsWhile it’s inevitable that couples experience ups and downs over the course of a long-term relationship, there are times when conflict can reach a critical point and the prospect of a breakup begins to feel more real. Deciding whether to stay or go can be tough. Often, the relationship can feel compromised due to a variety of concerns that have not been adequately addressed. While it can be challenging to identify the real issues and determine the best course of action, doing so may lead to clarity and confidence as you move toward a decision. It can also help you to honor the good in the relationship and amicably move forward in your separate lives.

As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I greatly appreciate the extensive body of research that Dr. John Gottman and his team contributed to the field of couples relationships. When couples enter therapy, I find it helpful to review some of his core findings about relationships in order to provide an overview of the qualities and attributes that will help them to be more effective with each other.

Here are some points to consider if you’ve been feeling conflicted about ending a long-term relationship:

1. Trust and Commitment

Perhaps there has been a rupture in the relationship and you find yourself wondering whether trust and commitment, two essentials, still exist in your relationship. Sometimes these two areas become so compromised that day-to-day life together starts to feel toxic. When this happens, it’s important to take inventory and understand each other’s perspective about what’s not working.

As a pro-relationship therapist, I believe there is value in working through relationship challenges. In exploring and sharing important feelings, individuals may begin to feel a sense of relief and a feeling of finally being understood—two important components involved in repairing damage and trust ruptures. When each person is able to identify their experience in their relationship, feel heard, and reach a mutual understanding about what needs to shift, couples are often able to move from feeling stuck to feeling more accepted by their partner. This shift in perspective often has a profound impact on a couple’s ability to nurture a more positive atmosphere with each other.

2. Friendship and Curiosity

Do you remember what it was like when you met your partner? Perhaps a thrilling sensation would pulse through your body when you knew you were getting together. You felt alive, curious, and desired at the same time! Everything was new and exciting—even a mundane afternoon together somehow felt like the most interesting day of the year. During the early stages of your relationship, you likely engaged your partner in a way that made them feel special, asking a lot of questions, eager to understand all the complexities that made up their unique way of navigating the world.

It is not uncommon for this level of curiosity to fade over the course of long-term relationships—you get into a routine, you know your person, so why bother asking questions anymore? This type of thinking can be detrimental to your friendship. A solid friendship allows couples to weather the inevitable ups and downs of their intimate relationship and to support each other as individuals separate from their partnership. When we stop being curious about our partner, the relationship may become stagnant.

3. Conflict Management

Do you find that you’re constantly at odds? If you’re able to repair arguments often, conflict might not be cause for concern. Research conducted by Dr. Gottman found that it’s not necessarily conflict or negative contact that is the issue in relationships, but rather that conflict in the absence of positivity and repair is predictive of instability. Gottman notes that when there is a 5-to-1 ratio of positive-to-negative interactions, the relationship is likely to be stable. Positive interactions include not only the obvious but also more subtle gestures, such as a glance in your partner’s direction when they are making a point or a follow-up question to an expressed need. Positive interactions demonstrate that your partner is present and responsive to you and your needs.

A solid friendship allows couples to weather the inevitable ups and downs of their intimate relationship and to support each other as individuals separate from their partnership.

In times of conflict, if you find that you are not able to repair and that any attempts to repair or make light of a situation are met with cold indifference, anger, or hostility, you and your partner may benefit from exploring your experience of each other more in-depth. The ability to repair can include the following: taking some responsibility for what went wrong, accepting your partner’s influence, and demonstrating a willingness to participate in a conversation about what happened and what could be better.

When thinking about resolving conflict in your relationship, how can you nurture an atmosphere of positivity? If it’s typically difficult for you and your partner to make repair attempts, you may need to work on the underlying dynamics that prevent you from being more effective with each other.

4. Solvable vs. Perpetual Problems

In his research, Dr. Gottman emphasizes the importance of understanding the critical difference between relationship problems that are solvable and the ones that will always be there. I find this distinction to be incredibly hopeful. Couples often enter therapy in order to gain the clarity, skills, and confidence necessary to negotiate, on an ongoing basis, the many different points of contention unique to their relationship. In identifying which problems are which (solvable vs. perpetual), couples can begin to more effectively negotiate and compromise. For example, perhaps you have a contentious relationship with your partner’s best friend or an in-law. These situations can pose a big challenge for any couple; however, they are quite common and need to be addressed on an ongoing basis. For perpetual problems, the solution typically involves reaching a compromise.

Although spending time and energy on working through a relationship challenge may sound simple, it can sometimes be complicated due to past hurts or a lack of trust in a particular area, making it quite difficult for many people. If this area has been problematic for you and your partner, you may benefit from couples counseling in order to gain awareness, insight, and the skills necessary to negotiate important topics with greater ease.

5. Honoring Each Other’s Life Dreams

Do you sometimes wonder whether you and your partner want different things in life? You and your partner may have significant differences in your life goals, and that’s okay. The important thing to consider is whether you’re willing to support each other in accomplishing your respective life dreams. In thinking about ambitions, it’s helpful to consider them in categories. For example, what are some of your personal and professional goals?

For some people, it might be easy to define personal and professional life dreams. For others, it might involve more thought and soul-searching. If you are having trouble identifying these areas, start by considering what makes you feel happy, inspired, and joyful. Then think about your partner’s goals. Is your list similar in some ways? Are there significant differences? If so, what do you anticipate might be some of the challenges? Honoring the life dreams of a partner may involve some compromise, so it’s important to consider what you’re willing to compromise and what you’re not. This is an area that is worthy of thoughtful discussion so you can be informed and on the same page about accomplishing your respective goals.

Over the life of any relationship, feeling disappointed and hurt at times is inevitable. And while a breakup is sometimes unavoidable, other times it’s possible to work through difficulties and achieve a closer connection. Whatever the situation, it can be helpful to spend time reflecting on the areas mentioned above to help you determine a thoughtful decision. If you are committed to your partner but are having difficulty engaging in these topics or moving through your unique relationship challenges, you may want to seek couples counseling to help you to improve the quality of your relationship.

Reference:

Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jennifer J. Uhrlass, LMFT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 5 comments
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  • Theresa

    Theresa

    November 29th, 2016 at 11:07 AM

    Wouldn’t you say in some ways if you are even having to ask then you probably are having some doubts about your relationship with this person?

    I mean we have all been there but you have to know deep down inside what the right answer for you is going to be, but the nerve comes when you have to take that leap of faith and make the decision to do it.

    You probably know in your gut what the right choice is, but now it boils down to whether you can live with trusting that instinct.

  • Steve

    Steve

    November 30th, 2016 at 10:15 AM

    For me it has always boiled down to whether I want to actually spend time with this person. Does she make me laugh? Do I feel that she genuinely care for me? Is there more to the relationship than just the sex? I think that those are the kinds of questions that can help you narrow down pretty quickly if this is someone that you would like to be with or that you should move away from in life. Pretty basic when you think about it.

  • Victoria

    Victoria

    December 2nd, 2016 at 1:34 PM

    I really appreciated the insights in this article, especially the piece about “honoring each other’s life dreams”, what a gift to be present and passionate in a relationship regarding ones self, but equally walk from a place where we offer this to the “other” person in our lives.

  • Thad

    Thad

    December 3rd, 2016 at 8:37 AM

    The one thing that you also have to contemplate is how much time you have ultimately over the years invested in this relationship. When you have done your time and put a lot into it then it is difficult to imagine a life without that person in it, even if that would probably be the best choice for you in moving on with your life.

  • margie

    margie

    December 5th, 2016 at 10:34 AM

    Rarely are you going to get to the point where you are trying to decide whether to break up or not because of one little argument. This is going to usually be something that has been a long time coming, and you have to decide for the two of you whether you mean enough to each other to try to work it out.

    But you also have to respect if you feel like you would want to work on it but then other person doesn’t. You can’t make someone still care about you if in their mind everything is over, so I think that holding onto something that isn’t there anymore is probably the worst thing that you could do.

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