You’ve been in a relationship for a while now, and you thought it was working out fine, until one day it hit you – something felt off. You couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was, so you decided to ignore it, but now you’re starting to have serious doubts about your future as a couple. Maybe you find yourself enjoying the security of your relationship more than actually being with your SO, or maybe you’re hanging onto the wrong person for fear of not finding anyone else. To help you decide what to do, here are six signs that say it's time to move on.
1. You want the security
When you’ve been with someone a long time, imagining life without him or her can be terrifying. Perhaps you’ve noticed some signs that your SO isn’t right for you, but you’re afraid of losing a partner and a friend.
Abby, a junior at Columbia College, started dating her best friend her junior year of high school. “We continued to date three years after that,” Abby says. “I realized we weren’t right together when I went away to college and we had to do the long-distance thing. I realized I was hanging onto the relationship more because of the comfortableness of it and security it brought me.”
For Abby, staying with her boyfriend was easier at first. “I felt since I was in a long-term relationship, I was a lot more mature and ready to grow up, and I was scared I would lose that maturity when we broke up,” she says.
Thankfully, it turned out that Abby’s worries were unfounded. “Now that we’re broken up, we’re both much happier and it’s only made me realize more that we weren’t meant to stay together,” she says.
Losing someone who has been so important in your life will not be easy, but if your instinct tells you that something is wrong, you need to trust it, says Carole Lieberman, M.D., a Beverly Hills psychiatrist and author.
“If you keep sensing that the relationship you're in is not right, even if you can't yet put your finger on why, ask your boyfriend for some time off,” Lieberman says. “Then see how you feel when you put some distance between you and can get a better perspective.”
2. You don’t want to be alone
If you’re used to being in a relationship or you’ve been single for a while, you might start to feel lonely. This could lead you to stay with the wrong person for fear of never finding anyone better. “Women often stay in bad relationships for many reasons, such as being afraid of not finding a better boyfriend and being alone,” Lieberman says. “They convince themselves that even a selfish, boring or abusive boyfriend is better than no boyfriend at all.” But even if your SO is perfectly nice, you shouldn't stay with him or her if it doesn't feel right.
Beyond pure loneliness, staying with the wrong person could be a sign of low self-esteem, according to Marla Martenson, a matchmaker, author and speaker. “I have heard women say, 'If I leave, I will never find anyone else,'” Martenson says. “This is so far from the truth, but in the moment, it feels like he is the only guy on the planet that would commit to her.”
Isobel*, a junior at Illinois State University, was once in this situation. “I was in a relationship for a long time [partly] because I didn't think there was anything else out there,” she says. “Even though the relationship was bad and we kept fighting, I didn't want to end it.”
So if you find yourself holding onto someone simply because you’re scared of being alone, remind yourself that you will find the right person eventually. And you can’t do that if you’re with the wrong one.
3. You don’t want to lose your SO’s friends or family
If you got close to your partner's friends or family in the course of your relationship, it can make the idea of breaking up that much harder. This happened to Isobel, who says, “When you break up with someone and you're close to their family, you feel like you're breaking up with 25 people.”
Even if you care about your SO, your affection for the people around him might be delaying an inevitable breakup. “I was recently dating a guy who I liked a lot, but I knew deep down the relationship didn't have long-term potential,” says Allie*, a senior at the University of Michigan. “I stayed with him for longer than I should have because … I loved his family!”
Be honest with yourself: If you know something is wrong, don't stick around just because you love your SO's entourage and don’t want to lose them. “Getting along with my boyfriend's family is so crucial to me, that when I had found someone who had a family I fit in with so well, it made me overlook the signs that he and I weren't meant to be,” Allie says. “I inevitably ended things because he and I didn't have the connection needed to sustain the relationship.”
Even though losing so many people at once will be difficult, nothing can justify staying in a relationship you know isn't meant to be.
4. You’re using your SO
Perhaps your SO brings you something that you wouldn't have without him or her, whether it's help with homework or a higher social status. This is great– unless it becomes the only reason you stay in the relationship.
According to Dana Corey, a relationship expert, girls often worry about losing their social status if they break up with their partners. But you might also be worried about losing other perks that come with being in a relationship, even if you're not fully aware of it.
Lola*, a sophomore at Denison University, dated a guy for two years but realized after one year that she didn't like him anymore. “He was extraordinarily clingy and needy, but I stayed with him an entire year afterwards,” Lola says. “I now realize that I was using him for help with my classes, because he was originally my tutor.”
Although you are probably aware that you are using your SO, you might not admit it to yourself – especially if the benefits seem to outweigh the costs of staying with him or her. However, “at the most basic level, relationships are about give and take,” says Jodi R. R. Smith, president and owner of Mannersmith Consulting. “But as a confident college woman, once you are only enjoying the perks and not the SO, it is time to move onto the next relationship.”
5. You’re scared of breaking up
Maybe you know that your relationship isn't working out, but the thought of breaking up terrifies you. That being said, “the fear of what might happen when you break up is not enough of a reason to stay,” Smith says. “If you simply fear making the other person sad, know that they will be equally sad to find out you do not love them the way they deserve to be loved. If you fear them yelling at you, find a neutral spot where others are about so that he/she will be less likely to yell.”
Lola knew a breakup was much needed, but she found herself delaying it that extra year. “I was scared he would grieve too badly and would need me too much if I wasn't there,” she says. “I was scared that he would hurt himself, or that he would hate me for hurting him.” As soon as a situation like this arises, you should talk to a school counselor about how to get yourself out of this relationship.
Lola’s relationship was a very serious case, but breaking up is never easy. However, “the sooner you address the conversation, the least amount of pain there will be,” Corey says. “Unless breaking up is mutual, there is going to be pain.”
So, yes, breaking up will most likely hurt both you and your SO, but “too many women take this as a sign that they shouldn't break up with someone who really isn't right for them,” Corey says. “Sadness is normal. Feel the grief, and then move on.”
Lola's relationship is proof that delaying a breakup will be harmful to both partners. “The relationship really hurt me because I didn’t want to be in it,” she says. “He brainwashed me into thinking that if I ever broke up with him, he would become a total mess and basically lose his mind.” It took therapy for Lola to build up the courage to break up with her ex, which goes to show just how difficult this situation can be. But if you know that you need to get out of your current relationship, you should take all the necessary measures to do so.
Claire*, a senior at Notre Dame University, would definitely agree. “I stayed with a guy for way too long out of guilt,” she says. “He was always complaining about how girls never liked him and how he would end up alone. The long, drawn-out breakup was awful but necessary!”
6. You think your SO will change
Emily*, a senior at Oklahoma State University, once dated a guy even though he was rude and made fun of the friend who had introduced them originally. “I really didn't like him, but I will give it to him that he was very handsome,” Emily says of first meeting her ex. So when she heard that this guy thought she was cute, she tried flirting with him despite her negative first impression. One thing lead to another, and the two of them started going out a few months later.
Emily had ignored her ex's insensitivity, but sure enough, “he began to be rude and sarcastic” with her, the same way he had acted with her friend. Corey says that “many women feel the inkling of an intuitive 'red flag,' but ignore it out of a mistaken idea that [their SO] will change or that [they are] the one who can change him.”
But, according to Martenson, you could also blame your hormones. “The guy who is sooo cute, sooo sexy, but sooo bad for you is hard to resist,” she warns. “I did it myself – I married the wrong guy because he was gorgeous and French. He treated me like crap, but my common sense flew right out the window when I looked into his green eyes and heard that French accent.”
Aside from showing us that even love experts make mistakes, Martenson's experience taught her the value of respect. “If your guy is respectful of you and accepts you for who you are, he is a gem and someone to hold onto,” she says.
For your SO to behave badly is one thing, but for you to think you can change him or her is another. “You cannot be responsible for someone else's happiness,” Smith says. “The only way the other person is going to change is when he/she is good and ready. You staying will likely perpetuate the bad behavior. By leaving, you change the dynamic and give the person an incentive [to change his/her attitude].”
You can't stay in a bad relationship in the hopes that your SO will change overnight. If you really want him or her to evolve, Smith advises that you recommend counseling or self-help books to him or her—if you are comfortable enough to do so—but sticking around will only make matters worse.
According to Lieberman, “a relationship that's working feels light, easy and fun, like waking up to a bright spring morning with lots of promise in the air.” If you can't relate to her swoon-worthy words or if you recognize yourself in any of the signs we listed, it could be time for you to break off a dead-end relationship. Although breaking up is hard and nobody wants to be alone, keep in mind that in the long run, both of these options will trump staying with the wrong person any day.
*Names have been changed.