Relationships

A Therapist on How to Know When It’s Time to Move On

| 01/13/2020

how to know when to move on Illustration by Emma Olswing

Love and relationships, especially when they’re new, can have us feeling completely out of sorts. Hopefully over time, things settle into a relationship that feels more stable. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, and love can complicate our ability to decide whether it’s time to end it. But with a clearer understanding of the natural stages of love according to researchers, we can make wiser choices about whether or not our relationship is worth saving—or whether it’s just time to move on.

Stages of Romantic Love


Stage 1: Attraction

This first stage of love is the initial physical attraction towards the person you’ve just met. This is a time of intense fire and passion. Emotionally, this stage also means being preoccupied with the person and thinking about them a lot while your mind is otherwise unoccupied. This is the period of “falling in love.”

All intense emotions aside, this period of infatuation is also characterized by turning a blind eye to some of your potential partner’s negative qualities in favor of their more alluring ones.

Stage 2: Commitment

In this stage you begin to evaluate a partner for their long-term partnership potential. You may even move towards formal commitments such as moving in together, engagement, marriage, or having kids. This stage is exciting, but also challenging. You may start to notice the other person’s faults or have potential concerns about the viability of the match long term. Despite that, hope generally is still tangible for some time.

Stage 3: Disillusionment

Disillusionment is when a relationship shifts. At this stage, your relationship feels more daunting as you start to acknowledge one another’s faults more readily even as you’ve committed more and more. You might experience doubt about whether or not you made the right choice.

The key is discerning whether or not your concerns are “normal” relationship anxieties—or true signs of incompatibility.

This time is unsettling and many people in relationships deal with these frustrations alone; many people fear talking to others openly, such as friends or family, for fear of looking like they’ve failed. Some fear their concerns may be unreasonable and minimize their concerns for a long time, while others run at the first sign of trouble.

This stage is also very normal! Many partners are faced with the choice to stay together and settle, end the relationship, or find solutions and move forward.

Stage 4: Deep Love

If you and your partner work through your concerns during the disillusionment phase (which can happen independently or with a moderator, like a couple’s therapist), you are able to reach what is referred to as deep, companionate love. Unlike the fiery infatuation of the earliest stages, this period is characterized by a smoldering kinship. 

Partners at this stage tend to work very well together, addressing life’s concerns with respect and admiration for one another. This stage is often marked by acceptance of one another and feeling more stable in the relationship overall.

How A Stage Affects the Choice of Staying Together

Your relationship stage colors your perspective about whether or not the relationship is worth holding onto. Couples in the deep love stage are a lot less likely to separate than those in the disillusionment or attraction phases, where trust and stability haven’t yet been established. 

Indifference tells you that a relationship is in dire need of re-evaluation.

By contrast, it’s much easier to opt out of a relationship when you’re in the earlier phases. While the initial fire is exciting and intense, without more shared experiences it’s hard to maintain interest and investment. It is very hard to move toward a view of assessing long-term compatibility without learning one another’s thoughts, values, and interests.

The key is discerning whether or not your concerns are “normal” relationship anxieties—or signs of incompatibility that shouldn’t be ignored.

Signs the Relationship May Be Over

Have you ever heard the quote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference”? This feeling is one of the markers that a relationship is in dire need of re-evaluation. If you find yourself not caring about the relationship anymore, then it may be time to think more critically about whether or not staying is best for you. That may look like opting out of necessary discussions that include conflict and being passive, opting out of decisions altogether, or avoiding future planning with your partner.

John Gottman of The Gottman Institute has conducted research on relationships for four decades, and his work represents a gold standard in evidence-based information that many therapists rely on. The institute has identified principles that predict a relationship’s end, referred to as The Four Horsemen: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. While it’s impossible to not experience some of these at various points in our relationship (we all have bad days, don’t we?) an abundance of these characteristics, and an unwillingness to change them, can predict the death of a partnership.

So is it time to move on from your relationship, or not? If you answer “yes” to more than half of these statements, you might be in the danger zone (although even one “yes” is a cause for concern):

  • I often find that my partner and I criticize one another.
  • My partner and/or I belittle one another sometimes without even realizing it.
  • My partner or I find it difficult to not become defensive when given feedback on our choices or behavior.
  • My partner or I shut down or check out in challenging conversations with the other.
  • I often feel like there is more bad than good in my current relationship.
  • I find it difficult to work through conflict with my partner. Nothing ever seems to get resolved.

Putting These Thoughts Into Action 

I once worked with a client who had been struggling with the decision of whether or not to leave her current relationship. She came to me seeking clarity and direction, especially as there had been physical and emotional abuse between them. 

Throughout our time together we explored the kind of statements mentioned above. We not only looked at her emotional experience (“I just really love her and need her”) but also the boundaries of a healthy and fulfilling relationship. We were able to look at both the emotional and rational parts of the relationship. Through counseling, she realized she just wasn’t getting enough of the “good stuff” in the relationship to outweigh the bad. 

The break wasn’t clean; they ultimately broke up and got back together a few times after the bulk of our work concluded. But my client did see the value in having these benchmarks or signs to look out for in her relationships. It simply wasn’t information that she had before. 

Relationships are hard work and ask a lot of vulnerability from us. They can turn us from very rational, smart beings to bumbling, emotional messes. That’s normal! However, it’s always good to bring ourselves back to some simple, straightforward points so that we can assess compatibility with both rational thought and emotion. To have successful, healthy relationships, we need both parts. And no matter where your current relationship stands, seeking further clarity can give you the courage to ask for your needs to be met.

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