Of all the questions we receive from listeners on the show, “should I break up with my partner?” is probably the most common.
But ending a romantic relationship is also one of the most difficult — and confusing — decisions we face in life. It can be hard to know when a challenge is a true red flag, or merely an obstacle to work through.
When does healthy conflict become toxic dysfunction?
What’s the difference between temporary emotional distance and a permanent loss of passion?
When does a lapse in judgment become an unhealable wound?
These are complex questions that every couple has to explore and work through to arrive at the best decision.
But there are some symptoms and dynamics that clearly speak to fundamental problems in a relationship.
Once you acknowledge them, then you can either work through them with your partner — eyes wide open — or part ways, knowing that the relationship just wasn’t right.
So here are eight signs your relationship isn’t working, what you can do to try to fix it, and how to know for sure when it’s time to throw in the towel and break up.
1. You’re always fighting.
Real talk: All couples fight from time to time. Conflict isn’t inherently bad. In fact, a total absence of conflict often points to deeper issues — avoidance, inauthenticity, fear — in a relationship. When a couple fights consciously and productively, they tend to arrive at better outcomes, and keep the channel of communication open in the future. That’s how a healthy relationship operates.
But if you find yourself constantly fighting with your partner, then that’s almost certainly a red flag. Conflicts that drag on for months, arguments that go around in circles, fights that don’t lead to more empathy, intimacy or better solutions — these are all signs that something is fundamentally dysfunctional in the relationship.
Another red flag is when the fighting you engage in is especially vicious or disrespectful. Healthy conflict implies a baseline regard for the other person’s feelings and perspectives. This type of “enlightened fighting” doesn’t intend to hurt, but to understand.
Dysfunctional conflict, on the other hand, tends to criticize or diminish the other person. Or, as is often the case, to project unpleasant feelings onto them, such as anger or shame.
If your arguments tend to be about the same problem over and over, that’s another sign that something’s off. That signals that the underlying issue isn’t being addressed, and that the couple is merely reenacting the same conflict over and over without investigating the root causes, changing their behavior, or revisiting their assumptions.
Whatever the particulars, constant fighting is one of the key signs that a relationship is in trouble.
What You Can Do
If you’re fighting all the time — especially if you’re fighting about the same issues over and over — then the best thing you can do is find a new way of communicating with your partner.
Schedule some time to talk one-on-one. Take turns sharing your experience of the conflict. Listen to each other, try to appreciate the other person’s point of view, isolate the crux of the issue at hand. Dig deeper into the underlying themes, beliefs, and feelings driving the conflict. Try to stay open to a new way of looking at the problem, while also staying true to your experience.
If that proves difficult to do on your own, then it might be helpful to begin couples therapy. A counselor can act as an objective mediator, help partners listen to and understand each other better, and help them clarify and resolve underlying dynamics in the relationship. They can also help a couple learn how to argue more productively, which is a crucial toolkit in any relationship.
Ultimately, in order to resolve a conflict, one or both parties have to be willing to process difficult feelings, unpack old templates, and change unhelpful behaviors. If they can’t or simply don’t want to, then it might be time to consider whether this is in fact the right relationship.
When to Break Up
If you invest meaningful time and energy into resolving an ongoing conflict without any progress, then it’s possible that the relationship simply isn’t right.
Another sign that it’s time to break up is if your arguments escalate to physical or emotional abuse. If a partner strikes you, controls you, manipulates you, gaslights you, or otherwise treats you in an objectively hurtful manner, it’s time to put some distance between you and the other person. At that point, the fighting isn’t even remotely productive; it’s tipped over into something much more damaging, and the person instigating the abuse has work to do on their own apart from the relationship. Plus, sticking around in an abusive situation can be dangerous.
Finally, if your fights are not leading to better outcomes — a stronger connection, better communication, greater peace — then that’s probably a sign that it’s time to part ways.
2. There’s no intimacy.
The lifeblood of great romantic relationships is intimacy — emotional, intellectual, and, of course, physical. When that desire for physical closeness dwindles, that’s often a sign that the relationship is in trouble.
Of course, all relationships go through cycles and phases. The honeymoon period doesn’t last forever. Work stress and family obligations can get in the way. Major life events — such as grief, adversity, or major transitions — can interrupt your sex life or put a damper on libido. So can age, health, and mood. These are all normal ebbs and flows in a romantic relationship.
But when one or both partners lose their desire for each other, that’s a significant challenge, and often an indication that something is missing in the relationship.
If there’s no longer any chemistry between you and your partner, the thought of sleeping together turns you off, or you’re avoiding sex completely, then that’s a sign that something’s wrong.
Can a romantic relationship survive without physical intimacy? Of course it can. There are many models for intimate relationships. Every couple has different needs, interests, and expectations. A great sex life does not a great relationship make (not on its own, anyway). And many couples base their relationship on other forms of affection or different values, such as emotional support or shared objectives. As long as both parties are satisfied with the terms, there might be nothing wrong with a partnership like that.
But when one partner has unmet needs, or both partners are completely uninterested in each other sexually, that usually suggests that something’s off — which is certainly worth exploring.
What You Can Do
If you’re in a relationship like this, your best bet is to acknowledge the truth and communicate with your partner openly about it. Try to understand if the lack of desire is mutual or one-sided. Identify the obstacles to desire and intimacy. Most importantly, try to get to the root of the issue — which challenges (logistical, emotional, physical) are getting in the way of your sex life.
If you and your partner are simply too busy with other obligations, it can be helpful to carve out some time for each other. (I know, I know — not the sexiest approach, but often a helpful way to make connection a priority.) Consider setting a date in the calendar each week and sticking to it.
You can also make an effort to be more affectionate in your daily life — an unexpected kiss, a playful touch or a spontaneous encounter can make your partner feel desired and appreciated.
A healthy sex life is important in and of itself. But it’s often a reflection of other aspects of the relationship. Sometimes you need to work on those aspects — your emotional connection outside of the bedroom or an unresolved conflict in another department — in order to get things back on track physically.
When to Break Up
If an inadequate sex life has become a constant source of conflict for you, or if your partner doesn’t want to discuss the issue or make any changes, it might be time to consider ending the relationship.
While sex isn’t the most crucial thing in a long-term relationship, it is an important expression of love and closeness. When that desire goes away, it can be hard for the relationship to sustain its intimacy, strength, and momentum. (Not impossible — just difficult.)
Of course, if one partner can’t have sex for whatever reason, then it might not be fair or appropriate to end the relationship on that basis alone. It would obviously be absurd to immediately end a great relationship because one partner is struggling post-partum, has gone through physical or emotional trauma, is going through an age-related transition, or is struggling with other issues.
But that’s where communication becomes crucial again. Both parties need to get clear on what they owe each other, what they can and cannot live without, and what’s informing the lack of intimacy. And they have to be willing to individually address any variables that are contributing to the problem at hand.
All of which is to say that sex isn’t the be all and end all of a relationship. But it is a powerful component of most romantic relationships. As long as one or both partners expect a certain level of intimacy, a disappointing sex life could be a dealbreaker.
3. Trust has taken a hit.
Intimacy in a relationship also depends on trust. If you cannot fully depend on a partner — if you don’t have confidence in their feelings and actions — the relationship will always be on rocky ground.
Of course, different couples have different needs when it comes to trust. And different partners need to trust each other in different ways.
There’s emotional trust — being able to rely on someone, not feeling judged or abandoned, and not worrying that they’ll carry on with other people. There’s logistical and financial trust — believing that a partner will do what they say they will, follow through on commitments, and act responsibly. There’s physical trust — feeling safe with the other person, not feeling threatened or manipulated in any way. And, of course, there’s the baseline trust that you and your partner share the same feelings, values,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, and goals.
When any of these forms of trust break down, so does the relationship. Without that glue, a relationship loses its foundation.
What You Can Do
Trust takes time and effort to build. Once broken, it takes even more time and effort to recreate.
As with most challenges, communication is key. Both partners have to be able to talk openly about why the trust in their relationship has taken a hit. They need to acknowledge the behavior that led to the breakdown and make a genuine commitment to changing their behavior in the future — whether it’s avoiding the things that compromised the trust, or responding to that behavior in a more helpful way.
Most importantly, they have to actually do things differently in the future. When it comes to rebuilding trust, words will only go so far. Action, choices, a track record — that’s what rebuilds trust. Oftentimes you’ll have to begin with small steps. Aim to build trust incrementally by keeping your word on small promises — simply being there when you say you’ll be there, for example — and then working back up to major commitments.
Couples counseling is also extremely helpful here. With a therapist, a couple can dissect the behaviors and thoughts contributing to the lack of trust, find a new way of relating to each other, and get clear on their expectations in the future. This is especially valuable after a major betrayal, such as having an affair, when a couple needs to do deep work to repair the relationship.
When to Break Up
If the trust in a relationship has been broken in some fundamental way, then it might spell the end of the relationship. Every couple has different values and thresholds for conflict, of course. But some acts — infidelity, deceit, recklessness, abuse — tend to spell the end of a relationship. Some forms of trust simply can’t (and probably shouldn’t) be rebuilt.
In general, it’s helpful to consider a few key questions:
- Did one or both parties contribute to the breakdown of trust? Who’s primarily responsible?
- Is the responsible party willing and able to do the work of understanding their behavior, fixing it, and showing up as a different partner in the future?
- How likely is it that the responsible party will damage the trust again?
- Is there something in the relationship worth saving/fighting for?
- Is there a reasonable path to rebuilding trust, or is it fundamentally and permanently broken?
Answering those questions honestly will help you decide whether it’s time to part ways. But relationships are complicated, and there are many variables at play. If you’re in doubt, it might be worth giving couples counseling a real shot. Sometimes having that space to talk things out is what gives you the clarity you need to end the relationship.
4. Jealousy is getting the better of you.
All human beings experience jealousy (and its tricky cousin, envy) from time to time. To be in a romantic relationship is often to feel fiercely protective of your partner, and to want to feel secure in your exclusivity.
But when those feelings of appropriate protectiveness and exclusivity tip over into insecurity, suspicion, and control, they become toxic. That’s when jealousy can infect a relationship. Then the relationship is no longer a secure enjoyment of each other’s company, but a desperate attempt (overtly or covertly) to keep the other person from leaving.
Jealousy is an interesting phenomenon, because it’s both a problem in and of itself and a symptom of other issues. For example, someone might become jealous when they feel that they can no longer trust their partner, or they have less contact with them than they used to. And that can then lead to unproductive fighting, which damages the relationship further.
What You Can Do
Resolving jealousy requires open communication, genuine trust, and ongoing self-work.
A jealous partner needs to understand the roots of their complicated feelings. Is the jealousy a projected fear that the other person will leave? Is it a way to manipulate or control them? Is it fueled by feelings of inadequacy or paranoia? Are there earlier templates and patterns — perhaps with an inconsistent parent — that are informing the way you feel about your partner?
The jealous party then needs to investigate those feelings, understand their roots, and examine how they’re driving these dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors. The end goal would be to rewrite any unhelpful patterns and release any inaccurate beliefs about what the other person is up to. The best place to do this (surprise, surprise) is in individual therapy. A trained professional can help you sort through all of these formative experiences and relationships.
At the same time, a jealous person should also get clear on whether their partner is giving them a reason to feel jealous. Are they hiding relationships with other people? Not communicating openly or consistently? Feeding their insecurity in other ways? In many cases, it’s the interplay between two partners’ issues that drives jealousy. Every relationship is different, of course, but it’s worth looking at both sides of the equation.
“Negative” emotions like jealousy can be overwhelming. But ultimately, if you use them the right way, they can actually inform better decisions and lead to greater success and fulfillment.
When to Break Up
A jealous partner should consider breaking up with someone if they discover that the other person is actually fueling their jealousy in unfair ways — and isn’t willing to at least consider their behavior.
A person who’s with a jealous partner should consider ending the relationship if that partner isn’t willing to understand the roots of that jealousy and work on it.
It’s okay to be seized by negative emotions from time to time — we all are. It’s not okay to project them onto your partner, or to refuse to take care of your side of the street. If one or both parties aren’t willing to discuss the jealousy and find healthier ways of relating to each other, then there probably isn’t much opportunity for growth.
Of course, if a jealous partner engages in objectively violating or dangerous behavior — snooping through your phone, stalking you, controlling or manipulating you, or hurting you physically or emotionally — then it’s almost certainly time to end things. Remove yourself from the toxic situation. In those situations, jealousy is just the tip of the iceberg.
5. You don’t spend much time together.
This sign of a troubled relationship might seem so obvious as to be unnecessary, but it’s worth calling out. If you and your partner aren’t spending meaningful, consistent, high-quality time together, then the relationship is probably struggling. (Or the lack of quality time is causing the relationship to struggle — it’s a feedback loop.)
What does spending quality time together actually mean? Well, that depends on the couple. But in general, quality time includes:
- Having meaningful, intimate, important conversations
- Having fun together, laughing, playing, exploring, trying new things
- Creating experiences together (trips, goals, events, accomplishments)
- Being physically intimate (touching, cuddling, having sex)
- Spending time as a couple with other high-quality people
Again, every couple is different. And not all activities map to the same experiences. One couple can have a super meaningful conversation while walking the dog around the block, while another couple could hike Machu Picchu without exchanging a single meaningful word. The “what” is less important than the “how” and the “who.”
But if you find yourself sharing less and less time with your partner — or straight-up avoiding contact — that’s usually a red flag.
What You Can Do
First, ask yourself why you’re not spending as much time together. Are you busy, distracted, or checked out? Or do you simply not want to spend time with your partner anymore?
If it’s the latter, then the relationship is probably coming to a close (but we’ll get to that in just a moment). If it’s the former, then you have a few options.
On a logistical level, commit to spending time together. Pick one day a week to be “date night,” and don’t cancel it for anything less than an emergency. Actively seek out new experiences together, whether it’s doing a weekend trip to a different city, taking a cooking class together, or learning a new language together.
On a deeper level, explore the reasons that led you to spend less time together, so you can make sure the pattern doesn’t continue.
Is it purely a logistical challenge? Or are you actually avoiding time with your partner? If so, what’s driving you away, or causing you to drive the other person away?
Is contact bringing up difficult thoughts and feelings that you’d rather avoid? Or have your feelings about the other person changed?
And how are you spending that time apart from your partner (and vice versa)? Are you investing it in meaningful goals or activities (leveling up in your career, working on yourself, etc.) or are you simply whiling away the time as you avoid a tough conversation?
As with any difficult experience, it’s important to dig into the underlying causes. That’ll give you the data you need to either course-correct or come to terms with the state of the relationship.
When to Break Up
This sign generally points to one thing. If you simply don’t enjoy spending time with your partner, your goals or priorities have changed, or you’re more interested in other people — especially other potential romantic partners — then the relationship is probably coming to a close. You can’t have a successful relationship with someone you don’t enjoy being around, full stop.
6. Your emotional needs aren’t being met.
When your partner isn’t fulfilling your emotional needs — for closeness, honesty, love, support, safety, affection, and so on — that can lead to loneliness or resentment, which are poison to any relationship.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that all emotional needs must be met within one romantic relationship — friends and family also fulfill an important function there, and we can certainly have our needs met by different people — but when a romantic partner doesn’t fulfill certain key emotional needs (or even try), that’s usually a sign that something’s not working.
Now, it might not be appropriate for a person to cater to every emotional need their partner has at every moment of the day. That can easily tip over into emotional caretaking. But if they don’t play a healthy role in the other person’s emotional life, the relationship will probably begin to feel hollow, disappointing, and inauthentic. Once those feelings creep in, that’s usually a sign that the relationship needs work — or is simply not working.
What You Can Do
Once again, communication is the key here. Talk to your partner about your needs, how they’re going unmet, and why they’re so important. Help them find ways to meet those needs (in healthy and appropriate ways, of course).
At the same time, work with your partner to understand why those needs have been hard for them to meet. Are they unclear? Confusing? Overwhelming? Unfair? What needs in your partner do those needs stir up? What prevents them from being there for you in that way?
Then ask them about their needs. Are there ways you could be a better partner too? Have you both been missing each other in different ways? How can you each become more generous, available partners to each other?
In general, it’s worth giving your partner a fair opportunity to understand your perspective and make changes before giving up on the relationship. It’s also possible that you’ll need to look within to resolve your dissatisfaction — if, for example, you realize that you’re expecting too much of your partner, you’re looking to your partner to take on emotional work that isn’t theirs, or you’re not expressing your needs clearly enough.
When to Break Up
If these conversations help you and your partner become more emotionally available and attuned, then the relationship could very well survive — and get stronger.
But if these conversations prove that your partner can’t or won’t be more available to you — or that you can’t be there for them — then they’ll probably spell the end of the relationship.
If there’s a significant mismatch in values around these emotional needs, then it might be time to part ways. Ultimately, if you have a more subjective feeling of unresolved needs — loneliness, alienation, sadness, disappointment, shame — that’s almost certainly a sign that you’re not in the right relationship. (Or, as is often the case, that you haven’t done the work on yourself to truly understand those needs and find the right partner for you.)
7. You’re considering cheating (or you already have).
Unsurprisingly, cheating in a monogamous relationship is a serious red flag. It points to real issues — in the cheating party or in the relationship — and it creates additional dysfunction and conflict.
Now, look. Fantasizing is a perfectly normal activity, and if it stays on the level of thought, it’s usually innocent. It’s not like all happy couples never have passing thoughts about other people.
But having persistent thoughts about cheating, feeling tempted to cheat regularly, wishing you were in another relationship — that’s when these fantasies start to become problematic. (Or rather, they reveal problems in your own state of mind or in your relationship.)
But the same principle goes for any activities that fall on the “cheating spectrum” — putting yourself in situations where infidelity could take place, flirting or creating intrigue with other people, engaging in “light” or “emotional” cheating, or carrying on with people virtually.
So if you’re feeling drawn to other people, or you’ve already had interactions outside of your monogamous relationship, then it’s time to take a step back and consider whether your relationship is truly working.
What You Can Do
Cheating is a complicated phenomenon. It can speak to themes in the cheating person’s psychology, challenges with their partner, needs that are dysfunctional or are going unmet, or problems in the relationship overall. It would be impossible to address every variable at work in infidelity here. Every person and every relationship is different.
In general, though, the first step is to come to terms with your behavior. Accept that you are engaging with people outside of the bounds of your relationship, and recognize that that is problematic and unfair. (We can all agree, personal ethics and considerations aside, that cheating tends to create dysfunction no matter what — even when no one finds out.)
Then get curious about what this pattern reveals — about you, your needs, your relationship, your partner. What’s driving you to cheat? Which needs are you trying to fulfill (or run away from)? Why are you in this relationship in the first place?
If you need help doing that (and most people do), then take these questions into therapy. Struggling with infidelity is an excellent opportunity to begin working with a professional. There’s a lot of meaningful territory to explore in this situation, and you’ll probably find a great deal of growth and insight, in addition to clarity about your relationship.
Finally — when the time is right — the best thing you can do is talk to your partner.
Again, the goals of this conversation will differ from couple to couple. So will the outcomes. You might decide to own up to the cheating with your partner, apologize, and ask for a chance to work on the relationship. Or you might fess up to the cheating with no expectation of continuing the relationship. That’s up to you. (Again, a therapist would be enormously helpful in planning and processing this conversation.)
If you’re determined to work on your relationship (and your partner is willing to, of course), then you’ll want to explore all the available resources — therapy, books, support groups, programs, and so on. And you’ll have to sincerely engage in communication, self-reflection, and a meaningful change in behavior.
You’ll also have to refocus a great deal of attention on your partner. Get clear with yourself on why you’re with them, why this is the relationship you want, and how you plan to show up differently. If you still have the impulse to cheat, you’ll need to learn how to identify those feelings, manage them, and redirect them into your relationship.
Finally, it’s worth acknowledging that cheating might mean that you are simply not in the right relationship. Either you should be single, so that you can fairly date other people (which is perfectly fine), or you and your partner might consider changing the terms of your relationship if that would give both of you the flexibility you want. But that requires a ton of communication, honesty, and understanding from both parties. And shifting to another model, such as an open relationship, won’t automatically fix any underlying issues between you and your partner.
When to Break Up
If you’re consistently cheating on your monogamous partner (or engaging in behavior on that spectrum) — and you’re not making any progress toward resolving it — then it’s probably time to end the relationship. Sticking around isn’t fair to your partner, and it’s probably not bringing you closer to the insight and growth you need.
Take some time apart, get some clarity, and figure out what was driving the impulse to cheat.
If you find that you do want to be with your partner but have a problem, then you know it’s time to do some work. That might be work you’ll have to do on your own before you’re ready to give the relationship another try.
If you find that you’re cheating simply because you don’t want to be with your partner anymore, then that’s a good reason to break up too. It’s just time to move on (and to spare you and your partner a ton of stress and heartache).
Finally, it’s time to break up if your partner learns about your cheating and isn’t willing or able to work on the relationship with you. Recognize their feelings. Respect their wishes. Don’t fight to stay together if the other person needs time apart. Yes, couples can work through infidelity while they stay together, and many do. But both parties have to want that for it to be successful.
This brings us to the final red flag in relationships.
8. There’s no possibility of change.
All relationships require growth to survive. If both parties are willing to evolve in response to new challenges and opportunities over time, a relationship can evolve with them and continue to thrive. But if one or both parties don’t want to change — or are evolving in very different directions — then the relationship will usually falter.
Of course, there are situations where one partner needs to change while the other doesn’t (for example, when one person is habitually cheating or wrestling with unfounded feelings of jealousy). And sometimes both partners are fine as they are, but they’re simply not the right match. So it’s not the case that changing is a guaranteed solution to every problem in a relationship.
But if the people involved aren’t even willing to consider another way of responding when problems arise, then fixing the relationship will be difficult, if not impossible.
What You Can Do
If you’re dealing with a partner who can’t or won’t change, then your best bet is to give your partner the support they need to change in appropriate ways. Make it safe for them to consider another way of doing things. Empower them to take steps toward addressing their behavior. Help them see which changes would make the relationship more successful overall. Meaningful change takes time. You might have to give the other person weeks or months to make a healthy change.
If you’re the partner who can’t or won’t change, then it’s time to do some introspection. Why aren’t you able to alter your behavior? Which thoughts, feelings, or concepts are standing in your way? Do you feel strongly enough about your partner to want to make the change in the first place?
If you decide that you do want to change, then it’s time (once again) to communicate with your partner. Ask them for help and insight. Share your goals and sticking points. Seek the support you would provide them if they needed help changing.
Either way, if you or your partner absolutely refuse to change in the relevant ways — and you’ve given the relationship several chances over an appropriate period of time — then you have a choice to make.
Either you accept your partner for who they are and stay together, which means making peace with the parts of them you can’t change (which is sometimes the best option, especially when the change you were hoping for is relatively minor).
Or you decide that this isn’t the partner for you.
When to Break Up
If a partner won’t change in ways that would best serve the relationship (which is different from ways that would best serve you), then you probably have a good reason to break up.
But that requires you to have a very clear understanding of which changes are actually important to you. For example, you might wish your partner were more organized, and find that their mess drives you up the wall. But that might be a quality you could learn to accept, if their other positive qualities mattered more to you. Confronting your partner’s messy desk every morning is obviously lower stakes than confronting messy relationships with their exes.
Of course, certain behaviors are objectively problematic and absolutely need to change for the relationship to function well.
If a partner refuses to stop abusing you, manipulating you, putting themselves at risk, engaging in dangerous or criminal behavior, or cheating on you with other people, then those are good reasons to leave. There are certain non-negotiables in a healthy relationship — for example, your physical safety, your emotional wellbeing, and a sense of trust and honesty. If the relationship has turned toxic and you or your partner are completely averse to change, even after honest discussions and professional counseling, it’s time to get out.
If you’re interested in learning more about successful relationships, we welcome you to read more about when to cut a toxic person out of your life, how to say no after you’ve already said yes, and how to manage difficult emotions, such as envy.
And if you want to learn from some of the smartest and most fascinating people in the world, then come check out The Jordan Harbinger Show.