Should I stay or should I go? Many of us have wrestled with this question at some point in our romantic lives. Whether you’re struggling with toxic relationship dynamics, physical or emotional distance, infidelity, clashing values, or you’re simply outgrowing each other, if you’re contemplating breaking up with someone, you know something isn’t working.
In my work as a psychotherapist for individuals and couples, ambivalence about ending a relationship comes up frequently in therapy sessions. Clients often tell me: “Maybe if I give it a few more months, things will change.” “Maybe we just need some space.” “Maybe couples therapy will help.” “Maybe I should change my needs and expectations.” “Maybe I need to give an ultimatum.”
Feeling conflicted about ending a relationship makes sense. After all, you’ve invested a significant amount of your time and energy, you may still care deeply for your partner, and the thought of being single and trying to meet someone new can be daunting. According to one 2017 study published in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, 49% of participants reported high motivation for both wanting to stay and wanting to leave their romantic relationships, highlighting the prevalence of the stay-or-go dilemma.
So, how do you know when it’s finally time to walk away? I spoke with other relationship experts, examined common couples therapy techniques, and tapped my own knowledge as a psychotherapist to offer some insights. If you’re thinking about leaving a romantic relationship, these are some critical questions to ask yourself.
Is the relationship abusive—physically or emotionally?
Relationships that involve any amount of physical or psychological mistreatment require an immediate assessment of whether it’s time to leave, for the safety of one or both partners. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. However, many victims have difficulty grasping that their life is in danger due to the cycle of violence, a concept coined by Lenore Walker, PhD, a psychologist and founder of the Domestic Violence Institute. This cycle includes a “tension-building” phase, then a “violent-episode phase,” and finally a “remorseful phase”—during which the abusive partner is apologetic and, yes, remorseful, which can make the abused partner think the violence won’t happen again.
Another reason abuse can be difficult to identify: It doesn’t always leave visible marks. “If you’re in an abusive relationship, the behaviors you experience most frequently are emotionally and psychologically harmful,” Nadia Islam, PhD, LCSW, director of the Doctorate of Social Work program at the University of Southern California, tells SELF. If you’re not sure if your relationship is emotionally abusive, Dr. Islam, who specializes in working with survivors of intimate partner violence, suggests “considering if your partner insults or calls you names, criticizes you in a way that makes you question your worth, blames you to inspire guilt, plays mind games, or humiliates you. They might also use intimidation, coercion and threats, or even your children to influence what you do, as well as where you go and with whom.”
A healthy relationship, on the other hand, is rooted in mutual respect: “Negotiation and fairness, economic partnership, shared responsibility (including parenting), honesty, trust, and emotional support provide a foundation for equality and nonviolence,” Dr. Islam explains. Leaving relationships that involve intimate partner violence and/or emotional abuse can be particularly complicated and often dangerous, which is why Dr. Islam recommends reaching out for help before you have the conversation with your partner. Resources like the free National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) offer confidential support and can provide referrals to local resources, including domestic violence shelters and therapists trained in providing mental and emotional support for victims.
Is my mental health making it hard to see the situation clearly?
It can be particularly tough to figure out if a relationship is right or wrong for you when you’re struggling with your mental well-being. If you’re staying because you don’t think anyone else could love you, for example, that hopelessness “can be depression talking,” says Dr. Islam. This kind of distorted and catastrophic thinking coupled with low self-esteem can make staying seem like the only option. And if you’re sticking it out because you can’t stop worrying about the future—the thought of being alone forever or of not having a date for your next wedding, say—you might be struggling with anxiety. In fact, excessive worry (occurring more days than not) is a hallmark symptom of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Conversely, being depressed or anxious could also cloud your view of a relationship that is worth saving. If you’re regularly feeling hopeless or fearful about the future, consider asking your primary care doctor to screen you for depression or for GAD, and think about exploring these feelings with a licensed therapist, if you’re able to. A therapist can teach you coping strategies and help you see more clearly whether you’re staying with your partner for the wrong reasons—and, if so, recognize that you’re worthy of finding a more fulfilling relationship.
Am I staying out of love or out of obligation?
As Esther Perel, LMFT, couples therapist and bestselling author of Mating in Captivity, put it on her blog: “Love is not an obligation—it’s a gift.” If you’re staying with your partner because you feel obligated—maybe you feel like you owe it to them since they supported you through grad school, or like you have to stay for your kids—you may be putting others’ needs ahead of your own. This can hold you back from mutually fulfilling relationships—and is also a trait of codependency.