Who hasn’t been in a relationship way longer than they should have? Because, well, let's face it, relationships aren’t always black and white — and it’s usually the gray that makes things complicated. “Should I stay or should I go? That is often the big question,” says Wendy Walsh, PhD, adjunct professor of psychology at California State University, Channel Islands and author of the 30-Day Love Detox. “Not only are people sometimes unaware that issues could be signs that things won’t work in the long-term, they can also put too much weight on things that should not lead to a breakup, too.” The other big issue, says Walsh, is that as much as you have to look at how your lover treats you, your own actions may dictate more about your relationship than you think.
Here’s a stay-in-it or let-it-go checklist to help navigate what is meant to last and what isn’t.
What's Your Positive Percentage?
When it comes to how you two interact on a regular basis — from your texts to your dates to your sex and random convos — how positive are things? Does everything turn into a fight? That’s when you need to be concerned. “Researchers can watch couples and know in the first 90 seconds with 96% accuracy if they are going to break up,” says Kelly Campbell, PhD, associate professor in the department of psychology at California State University in San Bernardino, California. “It’s all a matter of positive versus negative interactions from a percentage perspective.”
So, basically, if you and your honey have good, loving, happy, healthy interactions 80% or 90% of the time, you can probably work through most of the BS that comes up. Once that number starts creeping down, and you get to only the 60% positive mark, it may be time to reconsider why you’re together. Not sure how much is good and bad? “Keep a journal and write down some interaction descriptions on a daily basis,” says Campbell. “Once there is a certain percentage of negative interactions, that’s when one may feel more inclined to go and see what else is out there — because once you think, 'Hey, I’m a good catch, I could do better,' that’s when it might be time to do just that."
Be Honest, How's Your Sex Life?
“One of the most common things that my patients tell me is that they love who they are with, but they aren’t in love with them anymore because the passion is gone,” says Walsh. While, yes, you can keep the fire going, keeping it at the just-met level is most likely chemically impossible.
“When you are in a new sexual relationship, your brain is on fire with high concentrations of neurotransmitters, including oxytocin and dopamine, so you are literally on a high,” says Walsh. “But, the more you have sex with the same person, the more you get accustomed to feeling not as excited, and this is often confused with 'falling out of love.' I say that’s when real love starts.” So, really, a drop in ripping each other’s clothes off isn’t always a bad thing, but once it becomes something that makes one (or both) of you not happy, that’s when it needs to be addressed. Or course, talking about sex (or lack thereof) isn’t always easy. Three out of five couples want better sex, but only one-third are willing to talk about it, a We-Vibe survey found. Walsh suggests initiating sex on your own instead of bringing up the fact that you haven’t had it (which could cause your partner to get defensive or lead to a fight), as well as staying positive when that talk does happen. Instead of concentrating on the you-don’t-do-this angle, go with something more like, “Honey, you really turn me on, and I really want more of you."
Still, there may come a point when you’re just out of synch sexually. You want to get down every other night; your partner is content with bi-monthly romps. Sure, this could come and go and many factors play in — your health, stress level, etc. But, at a certain point, if it’s always an issue, and not just circumstantial, then you might have to accept that your libidos simply aren’t compatible and decide if you have a future together.
Are You Too Secure?
While it seems like security is exactly what you do want in a relationship, Campbell says that it’s actually a little bit of unpredictability that can be the secret to making things work. “Every relationship wants stability and to feel secure, but spontaneity and excitement are also what can keep a relationship going,” she says.
So, how do you do that when you’ve been together for a few years or are together 24/7?
Well, this is truly when the small stuff counts. “Book a mini-weekend away, and try something new together,” says Campbell. Sure, that couples' dance class might seem over-the-top, but perhaps going to new restaurants you’ve both wanted to try, simply making plans with a group of friends out of your standard circle, or adding a fun event onto random date nights (jazz night? special tasting menu?) could be enough to liven things up a bit.
However, if you’re the only one who wants to motivate and make the effort, and your partner isn’t open to shaking things up, that might be a sign that they’re not truly invested in making things work.
Have You Stated What You Want, But It Never Happens?
According to Walsh, it might sound extreme, but behavior-shaping is real and it can work and keep you and your honey happy. “It’s when you use reward behavior to get what you want,” she says. For example: Your other half watches TV all the time and all you want is that you two could have dinner — sitting at the table — and talk; or your love never remembers when you have a big presentation or meeting at work or that your anniversary is here, over and over again.
“First, in clear but playful terms, explain the behavior change that you want — whatever it is — not in a sarcastic, ‘Well, if you did this…' tone. Then kiss them, hug them, and say that you would really be happy if they did XYZ” says Walsh. The idea: There is no fight, no drama, and nothing but love associated with doing the thing you wanted.
Wish your partner saved more money for your house, wedding, or just a rainy day? “Don’t yell about how they don’t give enough or save enough or spend too much — just say it would make you really, really happy if they would give more and why — and if they still go on a shopping spree, but buy just one thing on sale, then say, ‘Great! Now, we can put that extra $100 in the savings account,’" suggests Walsh. “And just like that, with those few and oh-so-easy verbal rewards, they’ll want to get that reaction again.”
Again, we get it: There’s a lot more gray in the landscape of love. According to Walsh, when it comes down to it, you simply have to ask yourself: “Have you done the real work? Do you really know how to be a good partner yourself?”
And, if the answer is yes, then, well, maybe it is time to move on. Campbell also expresses this as necessity: Be sure that the reasons you are thinking of ending it are true deal breakers for you.
Are You Not Getting Love In Return?
“There’s a belief system that the key to a wonderful, healthy relationship is a perfect partner, but it’s really about becoming the perfect partner,” says Walsh. If you’re more patient, communicative, and loving, then it’s possible to inspire that behavior in return. It’s the golden rule of treating others how you want to be treated.
Of course, if your partner shows zero interest in giving you a smooch back when they get home or returning random acts of thoughtful kindness, like making sure your favorite cookies are in the cookie jar (or whatever it is that makes you happy), time and time again, maybe the above need not apply. But, for the most part, it’s a golden rule. Because really, everyone just wants to be loved, right? “When all someone hears are demands, anger, sarcasm, then why would they want to be in that relationship either?” says Walsh.
The bottom line: Work hard to be the best partner you can be, even if this particular relationship isn’t the right one for you. That way you can always walk away knowing you put in all you could and have no, or as few, regrets as possible.