A common trajectory for the end of a relationship is the slow tapering-off; a protracted period of tell-tale signs and wilful denial, as motivation to patch things up dwindles in one or both partners.
A sudden, sharp break can feel more shocking, but it’s also clearer. A long disintegration period can leave a person reeling, unsure at exactly what point they stopped being an ‘us’ and became a ‘me’.
One of the most common refrains after a breakup is shock on the part of one member of the dissected duo, which often belies the presence of multiple clues that might have pointed to what was to come.
So, what are the signs? And how can you end a relationship – and process its ending – in a healthy, constructive way?
You may notice that you and your partner rarely discuss things anymore, either positive or negative. When issues arise, rather than work to solve them you may both sweep them under the rug, but hold on to the frustration you feel under the surface.
It may feel at this stage like there’s no point trying to work things out, and you’d rather opt for a peaceful life. Similarly, when positive things arise in your life you may not feel an urge to let them know.
Intimacy in your relationship may be rare or unheard of at this stage, both sexual and non-sexual. Physical intimacy of all kinds is critical sustenance for a relationship. Touching releases hormones that produce love and connection, namely oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide released in your brain when you are physically intimate (sexually or non-sexually) with another person – it produces feelings of trust, bonding and devotion. In the absence of physical intimacy, those feelings can dwindle.
Conversely to a total communication breakdown, you and your partner may be arguing like there’s no tomorrow, constantly at each other’s throats and unreceptive to any attempts to patch things over.
When people are feeling relationship frustrations, it can be extremely tempting to release energy through aggressive or confrontational behaviour. Like a pressure valve, the rush of anger can provide a temporary feeling of satisfaction, but in the long-term this type of behaviour erodes trust and respect and kills communication between partners.
Just as damaging as overt aggression, passive-aggressive communication is in itself steeped in anger. Passive-aggressive behaviours include stonewalling, mockery, and refusing to respond to communication. Though this kind of behaviour can feel like an outlet for frustration you can’t express via overt aggression, it can be just as damaging and abusive.
This doesn’t mean that you or they are being unfaithful, you may simply be moving your social world away from theirs to build space for a newly single version of yourself.
This shouldn’t be confused with maintaining a healthy social life outside of the relationship. Remember that it’s not your job to police who your partner spends their time with – that type of behaviour is widely regarded as a signpost for an abusive or co-dependent relationship.
This can be a bit of a false sign – in fact, most experts will tell you that fantasising about others is part of a normal, healthy sexuality, and that almost everyone does it.
The clincher is how much you find that your fantasy disturbs your peace: does it feel natural and like a positive expression of your sexuality, or does it feel guilt-laden and like it’s distracting you from your partner? Do you fantasise purely about sex or about a whole other relationship? Is that fantasy fixated on one person who is known to you?
These are questions you should ask yourself, to help you ascertain whether your fantasy is healthy or overtaking – and degrading – your real relationship.
While being agreeable and non-confrontational can be an asset to a relationship, constantly agreeing with or conceding to your partner to keep the peace can be a sign of a relationship that has tipped over the edge and toppled down the other side. Allowing your partner to walk all over you – or your partner allowing you to do the same – is a sign that the balance of power is off.
The first step, telling your partner it’s over, often seems like the hardest. There are ways to manage it positively and kindly – and ways not to do it.
Do end the relationship as soon as you have figured out that it’s nearing its sell-by date. Don’t drag it out for fear of a) hurting your partner or b) losing a sense of security or comfort in your life.
Dragging something out to save your partner’s emotions can conversely cause them more harm, since they’re likely to pick up on signs of discontent from you. Dragging something out because you’re afraid of being alone is cruel to the person you’re with, who deserves to be let go with dignity and start the process of moving on.
Do end things in person. Don’t shy away from the difficult conversation by conducting it remotely. You will both be able to move on quicker if you’ve hashed it out in person, and said your physical goodbyes, rather than leaving things unsaid.
Do be honest about the reasons, don’t make up excuses. It’s far more effective – and kinder – to tell someone that the feelings aren’t there anymore than to make up some kind of excuse. Firstly, your partner is probably smart enough to deduce that an excuse is exactly that. Secondly, if you give them false hope by inventing some kind of obstacle or reason, they’re less likely to move on in a healthy way.
Do be clear that it’s over, and don’t give false signals. It can be hard to say goodbye and mean it, but dragging out the inevitable by going back on your decision is painful for both partners and leads to confusion and miscommunication.
Processing the end of a relationship and moving forward is a tricky business, peppered with stops and starts and back-steps. But the end of a relationship doesn’t need to be a purely negative event. Losing someone can be a pretty profound way to reacquaint you with yourself.
There’s no denying that you’ll be in an emotional rut for a while. Attempting to subdue or control your emotions will most likely have the paradoxical effect of extending and enhancing them, so, like all losses, you need to take time to grieve.
It’s an irritating but true statement – these things take time. Patience is required, and an understanding that suffering is temporary.
It’s important that you’re honest with yourself about ways that you’ve suffered, but incessantly focusing on your partner’s negative attributes and dwelling on anger serves nobody. In fact, that kind of anger is actively damaging to your mental health. It also often acts as a camouflage for remnant feelings of love, especially if you feel you’ve been hurt or betrayed in any way.
It’s common for people to become somewhat stagnant in a relationship, occupying their time and energy with their partner. Newly single, now is the time to be pursuing things you’ve allowed to fall by the wayside – new friendships, new habits, new interests. It may sound like nothing more than a distraction, but building new facets of your life can contribute to a sense of wholeness and identity beyond the relationship you have left behind.
It can be annoying to hear, but there really are significant positives to the end of relationships, whether or not you choose to see them. The new relationships, habits and interests mentioned above are one major bonus.
More broadly, being alone represents an opportunity to get to know yourself as you are now – there’s no hiding behind a partner, so you can really interrogate who you are and what you want from life. In the long-term, building a level of self-knowledge and self-esteem actually improves your chances of entering into a mutually fulfilling, healthy relationship in the future.
This all may sound a bit sickly sweet, so it’s important not to attempt to deny the negative feelings you’re experiencing. You have to believe in the positives, not simply use them to distract yourself from the negatives. It’s a balancing act, and it takes time, so most importantly go easy on yourself if a positive outlook doesn’t come naturally to you in this moment.
Amalyah Hart is a freelance journalist and content writer, specialising in science communication. She has a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford and has completed a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She writes on psychology, health and health policy, and the environment. She also works in public policy consulting, specialising in the healthcare sector.