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When Should I Have Left You?

Recognizing when a relationship is dying.

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

When couples finally part, they have often endured a long period of diminished happiness before one or the other partners want out. Sometimes that decision is preceded by a crisis event, but more often it results from a slow erosion of quality interactions.


Most intimate partners who are facing this dilemma somehow knew much earlier that things were not okay, but were holding on to the hope that there would be some breakthrough miracle that would turn things around. They just weren't ready to face the impending grief.


Were these partners able to recognize the signals earlier, would they have been able to either repair the relationship or spared each other the discomfort of living in these drawn-out stages of decay?


The following 11 behaviors are often present in one or both partners if they are drifting apart.


1. Preoccupation

Partners who are drifting away from each other are deep in their own thoughts. When asked, their most common responses are: “I don’t really remember.” “Just thinking about things.” “Nothing special, just musing about life.”


2. Aren’t Easily Located

Formally accessible partners slowly become out of reach for longer periods of time. When asked about it, the most common responses are: “Just so busy at work.” “Why do you need me to be so instantly available to you all the time?” “Sorry, just didn’t even realize I was doing that.” “Got a lot on my mind right now."


3. Broken Promises

Partners who are pulling away may continue to act as if they are still committed to the relationship. They make the same promises but often don't keep them. Their confused partners begin to nag, searching for clarity. As things further deteriorate, the accused partners may refuse to make any agreements at all. “I’d think you’d realize how many obligations I have right now. I just can’t remember everything you want me to.” “I’m really sorry. I meant to do that but my time just got away.” “I’m sure you didn’t tell me that. Maybe you just thought you did.”


4. Invalidations

Relationships that are drifting apart are noticeably lacking in reassuring statements and increasing in more critical ones. Sometimes those negative expressions are denied or excused, but the difference is obvious. “Why do I have to constantly tell you what you want to hear? You’re too insecure.” “You never treat me special anymore.” “Can’t I do anything right, for God’s sake?”


5. No Future Plans

As partners drift apart, they either consciously or unconsciously know that they won’t be together forever, even if they’ve been unwilling to acknowledge it. They cease sharing hopes and dreams for their mutual future. “I just can’t think about the future right now.” “Why can’t you just be happy with the way things are?” “I don’t think we’re on the same wavelength anymore.”

6. Bids for Connection Ignored

People who are interested in each other frequently reach out for connection and closeness. They want to share events of the day, new ideas, disappointments, and triumphs. As a relationship loses interest for one or both of the partners, those bids for connection are either ignored, responded to curtly, or outright rejected. “I’m really busy right now. Can we just talk later?” “I’m just not as interested in so much connecting. Maybe you need more friends.” “What’s so important about that?”


7. More Energy Spent Away From the Relationship

Relationships thrive on shared experiences. People who still believe in their love reserve prime time for each other no matter how many other areas demand their attention. As people lose interest in each other, they often supplement that loss by committing to other people, ideas, or things that are more compelling and more rewarding. The abandoned partner tries to understand the different behavior: “You’re gone a lot. We hardly see each other anymore.” “Hey, you always wanted me to take up a hobby. So now I have and you’re complaining.” “I need some challenges and stimulation. I was getting really stale, doing the same things over and over. I’d think you’d be happy for me.” ”


8. Sentences Begin With “I” More Than With “We”

A subtle but very telling symptom. As couples drift apart, they noticeably talk about their own interests, desires, and plans, rather than those that were once shared. “I’m thinking of going on that surfing trip I’ve always wanted to go on. The group I surf with has asked me again, and I’m going to go.” “I always wanted to take up guitar. It’s time for me to make that dream a reality.” “Time for me to join a gym and get a trainer. It’ll take up my mornings, but I really want to get into shape.”


9. Treating Others Better

As people lose interest in a relationship, their life outside of that commitment takes on a new life of interest and energy. It is often manifested in more alive descriptions of time with other people, and obvious to the other partner. “I’m usually so disinterested in other people’s lives, but that new business partner brought something new out of me.” “You are so much more interesting and energetic when you are with your friends than you are with me.” “How come you compliment other people all the time, but never have anything nice to say to me anymore?”

10. Independent Allocation of Resources

Every relationship has mutual resources. Time, energy, finances, and more. When people are committed to each other, they decide together when and how to fairly allocate those resources so that the relationship will thrive. But, as people move away from caring for each other, they often begin to take from that pool unilaterally without checking with the other partner first. “I finally went out and bought that car I’ve been wanting for so long.” “I don’t know what got into me, but I just decided I needed a new look. Went to the spa and shopping.” “I took some money out of our savings to plan time to go see my family. I didn’t think you’d care since you go away with your friends all the time.”


11. Diminished Affection

This change in behavior is relative to what the couple’s patterns have been in the past. The new lessened physical touch or emotional availability can be subtle but underscores all the other avoidances and denials. Less tenderness, less physical intimacy, less forgiveness, less emotional support. “I’m really tired and just need some space.” “You’ve become really needy lately.” “It feels like you don’t want me anymore.” “Can you just hold me for a little while? I’m feeling so lonely.” “Are you having an affair or something? Just tell me.”


The longer any of these behaviors have been going on, the harder it will be for any couple to reignite the love they once felt for each other. Conversely, the sooner they are identified, challenged, and potentially healed, the better any couple has to come back together or leave each other with less painful memories.

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