If you’ve ever seen a romantic comedy, you’ve likely watched two people who find a way to be together — no matter what obstacles stand in their way. The reason is always simple: They’re in love. But off screen, love isn’t always enough to make a relationship last.
In fact, the feelings caused by romantic love can be so strong, they can convince people to stay in relationships that are unhealthy, unfulfilling and ultimately unhappy — whether they realize it or not. For example, when people looked at photos of their romantic partners, dopamine — a chemical associated with reward that makes people feel good — was released in their brains, a 2015 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found.
The way these chemicals make people feel can make them overlook logical decisions like leaving an unsatisfying relationship, says Julie Wadley, founder and CEO of matchmaking and coaching service Eli Simone. “When people are in love, they’re driven off of the drug, the endorphins,” she says. “The chemicals that tell you you’re in love with this person are firing.”
While being in love undoubtedly feels good (and is good for your health,) these feelings alone don’t spur solid, lasting romantic relationships. Here, experts explain some of the signs that indicate it may be time to let go:
Your needs aren’t being met
Every person has different “requirements” that need to be met in a relationship, according to Wadley. These needs can be emotional, like wanting quality time with your partner, or functional, like requiring them to competently manage money.
When one partner feels that the other isn’t fulfilling a requirement, Wadley says, it’s important to communicate that. If that person’s partner isn’t willing to try harder to fulfill that need, it’s probably time to move on, she says.
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One of the reasons people stay in relationships that don’t meet their needs stems from the negative views our society has about being single, according to Wadley. It may seem like if they leave the relationship, they may never find something better. But Wadley says that mentality wastes valuable time and perpetuates a person’s unhappiness. “You could be taking that time to find someone who will give you what you need,” she says.
You’re seeking those needs from others
When you get promoted at work or you’re faced with a family emergency, who is the first person you want to tell? In a fulfilling, healthy relationship, the answer to those questions should be your partner, according to Wadley.
It’s great to have trusted colleagues at work, but Wadley says if you’re constantly turning to a “work husband” or “work wife” for support, it may be a sign that you’re not getting the support you need from your partner. “If you’re like, ‘I have a choice between talking to my boyfriend and talking to my guy friend, the guy who is constantly giving you that emotional affirmation that I need — I’m going with the friend,’” Wadley says, “Something’s not right.”
If either you or your partner is seeking emotional or physical fulfillment from people outside of your relationship, Wadley says it’s a clear indication that it’s probably time to end the relationship.
You’re scared to ask for more from your partner
It’s natural to feel uncomfortable talking to your partner about what you need and may not be getting from your relationship. But Wadley says open lines of communication are essential to lasting, healthy partnerships.
“People may think, ‘That’s going to make me sound needy and emotional,’” says Wadley. Instead of speaking up, they suppress how they feel, continue on with their dissatisfaction and feign contentment out of fear of feeling like a burden.
“Then something happens that breaks the camel’s back,” she says. And the argument that ensues can wind up being more damaging to the relationship than it would have been if you had addressed it sooner. Hiding your true feelings about how your partner is treating you likely prolongs the unfulfilling relationship, rather than saves it, according to Wadley. If you can’t get past the fear of confronting your partner, it’s probably time to seek help or part ways, she says.
Your friends and family don’t support your relationship
Lindsay Chrisler, a New York-based dating and relationships coach says you should take stock of how your trusted family members and friends feel about your relationship. “If nobody in the community supports your relationship, that’s a red flag,” she says. If the people who love and support you see that the person you’re in love with isn’t making you happy, it’s a good idea to listen to their opinions, according to Chrisler.
If you decide push aside your friends’ and family’s concerns, it may lead to another sign that it’s time to let go of the relationship: “You’re starting to lie to your friends, you’re starting to lie to yourself,” says Chrisler. When you isolate yourself from your loved ones in order to avoid listening to their concerns, they’re probably right — the relationship probably isn’t, she says.
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You feel obligated to stay with your partner
People are more likely to stay in relationships that they’ve already invested time and effort in, a 2016 study published in Current Psychology found. This is similar to a money investment phenomenon known as the “sunk cost effect.” A prior investment leads to a continuous investment, even when the decision doesn’t make you happy.
“When it comes to people and relationships, time does not necessarily equal success,” says Wadley, who added that many of her clients are reluctant to leave an unhappy relationship because they want to reap the rewards of their investment.
But simply investing more time in a relationship with someone you love won’t fix the problems. If both partners aren’t willing to work to fulfill the other’s needs, the relationship probably isn’t worth more time.
You’ve been working on your relationship for more than a year
Of course, when two people are in love and have spent years together or have started a family together, there is a stronger incentive to work out the problems, says Chrisler. Her advice is to seek couples’ counseling if both partners want the relationship to work. But she caveats that you should set a time limit of one year.
“If you spend too much time in indecision, it will erode the foundation of the relationship to the point where you can’t really make it back,” she says.
After about a year of actively working on the relationship and unsuccessfully trying to meet each other’s needs, the difficult decision to break up is likely the best decision, according to Chrisler.
You don’t like your partner
While it may sound counterintuitive, Chrisler says you can actually be in love with a person you don’t like. If that’s the case, you may get by day to day, but it will be nearly impossible to make it through difficult times together.
All couples have disagreements, but people in healthy, loving relationships keep the mindset that “this is my friend, and I’m going to get through this with this person,” Chrisler says. “And I don’t know how you get through those things without liking them.”
Still, it’s never easy to walk away from someone you love — even when the relationship isn’t working, according to Chrisler. The key, she says, is to listen to the logical part of your brain, instead of submitting to the euphoric chemical reactions that love can cause.
Your partner is abusive
It’s possible for people in an abusive relationship to love an abusive partner. One in four women and one in 10 men have been victims of intimate partner violence, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2010 study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health found that more than half of the women surveyed saw their abusive partners as “highly dependable.” One in five of the women surveyed said the men possessed significant positive traits, like “being affectionate.” Researchers found that these views contributed to some victims staying in abusive relationships, among other reasons — like isolation, extortion and physical violence.
When it comes to abuse of any kind, Chrisler says it’s crucial to safely find a way out. “It’s difficult to get out of those relationships,” she says. “You have to really love yourself.”
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