How Do You Know When It's Time to Break Up?

Relationship signs that point to a breakup

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin  

In This Article

Many of us don't break up with a significant other when we should, for many different reasons. Some of us are afraid to be alone; others fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy ("I've already invested so much time and effort in this relationship, I can't give up now"). But most of us just ignore the signs that a relationship is falling apart because it's easier to believe that everything is okay...until it's not.

Knowing exactly when a relationship should be ended is a difficult task. It depends on the people involved and on the situation they live in. But there is fairly consistent evidence about the signs of relationship breakdown, unearthed by Dr. John Gottman.

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse

Gottman discovered four negative communication styles that spell disaster for any and all relationships. He dubbed these "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

Criticism

The first horseman of communication is criticism. Criticizing is different than critiquing or complaining. Criticism is about the person's character, rather than their behavior.

Here is the difference between a complaint and a criticism:

  • Complaint: "I really wish you would help me with the dishes. It's a lot of work to do by myself and while you relax on the sofa watching TV, I have to stay up and clean."
  • Criticism: "You're just a selfish jerk. You never think about how I feel or all the work I do for you."

The difference is that the first one is about a specific behavior and the second is about the partner as a person.

When criticism is present in a relationship, it doesn't mean that it's doomed to end. Once in awhile, when we're angry, we can resort to criticism. But when it becomes pervasive and when it is the only way you can bring up issues with each other, there's a big problem.

If you criticize your partner constantly or feel like your partner is constantly criticizing you, it's just a matter of time before it turns into something nastier: contempt. The relationship may be salvageable at this point, but it is a bad sign and it should make you consider whether leaving may be a better option.

Defensiveness

The second horseman is defensiveness, and it is typically in response to criticism (or perceived criticism). Defensiveness is an attempt to defend yourself from a perceived attack with a counter-complaint. We can be defensive by shifting blame onto external situations, but more often than not we are defensive by shifting blame onto the partner calling for accountability.

Here's an example of a defensive response:

  • Complaint: "I feel like our sex life has been a bit stale lately, and I feel like you're not really paying attention to my needs and desires in bed."
  • Defensive response: "Well, if you didn't nag me about the dishes all the time, maybe I'd want to have sex with you."

In general, humans do not like to be told they are doing something wrong or hurting other people. We have a tendency to want to think well of ourselves, and conversations like this threaten our self-esteem.

Defensiveness is really just a way of shifting the blame back onto your partner. You're saying that the problem isn't you, it's them. Refusing to take even a small amount of responsibility for your role in the situation can cause your partner to feel unseen and unheard.

Being constantly defensive in a relationship is a bad sign. It means that the defensive partner is not willing to look at their own behavior and adjust it to stop whatever is harming the other partner. It means that the defensive partner is treating the other as simply an object to fulfill their needs and not a whole person with needs, feelings, and ideas of their own.

If your partner constantly reacts defensively towards you (and you to them), it may be time you take a good hard look at your relationship. It may be time to end things.

Contempt

The third horseman is contempt. We show contempt when we treat others with disrespect. Contempt can be expressed in many different ways. When we insult others, we use sarcasm, mimic them, roll our eyes, or scoff at them. We call them names or ridicule them. The purpose of this behavior is to diminish the other, to make them feel worthless.

If you've ever been treated with contempt, you know how much it hurts. And treating a partner with contempt shows that you have no respect for them, their feelings, or their needs.

When contempt is present in a relationship, it's a big red flag. It means that the partners have stopped respecting each other as partners and are now just trying to assert dominance. There is little love or respect left anymore, and animosity and resentment will grow.

If you are being treated this way, there's a very good chance that your partner just doesn't care for you anymore. If you are treating your partner with contempt, ask yourself why you're still with them. If there is no respect between partners, there is little chance that the relationship can be salvaged.

Stonewalling

The last horseman is stonewalling and it is the most damaging behavior to engage in. Just as defensiveness is a response to criticism, stonewalling is usually a response to contempt.

When stonewalling appears in a relationship, communication has essentially broken down. Stonewalling occurs when the listener avoids eye contact, withdraws, shuts down, or simply stops responding to their partner.

When a relationship has reached the stage of stonewalling, it's very difficult (although not impossible) to recover. But it should be a very strong sign that maybe it's time to move along with your life.

This is the feeling when you'd rather do anything else than have the conversation. You only talk when absolutely necessary, and any foray into more vulnerable territory is met with a quick escape or silence.

Should You Break Up?

The important thing to remember is that all couples engage in criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling at times. But consistently using one or more of these behaviors is a definite sign that something is not right in your relationship.

Of course, if you're both willing to put in the work, a couple's therapist may be able to help you both stop using these communication strategies and give you the tools to effectively communicate your emotions. Ultimately, you are the best judge of your own relationship and situation.

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Article Sources
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  1. Arkes HR, Blumer C. The psychology of sunk cost. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0749597885900494?via=ihub. Published July 27, 2004.

  2. Lisitsa E. The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/. Published April 23, 2013.

Additional Reading
  • Carrere S, Gottman JM. Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion. Family Process. 1999;38(3):293-301. DOI: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.1999.00293.x.