All relationships have their ups and downs. There are disagreements (you want to go to the movies; the other person wants to hit up a friend’s party), communication challenges (did that text send the wrong vibes?), and the fact that you’re two different people who have unique goals and interests that don’t always perfectly align.
At the end of the day, however, if you’re in a healthy relationship, you’ll be able to keep all these things in perspective. Healthy relationships are based on mutual respect, trust, and honesty. People in healthy relationships keep their anger in check even when they don’t agree about something, because the other person’s feelings are just as important as being “right.”
If your relationship feels uncomfortable or you don’t feel safe expressing how you feel, those could be signs it’s better to end it, says Brian Jory, Ph.D., director of family studies at Berry College and author of Cupid on Trial: What We Learn About Love When Loving Gets Tough. But leaving a relationship isn’t always easy. You may not know what to say or worry about upsetting the other person. Read on for advice on how to tell if a relationship is unhealthy, and what to do about it.
What Does a Bad Relationship Look Like?
There’s no single answer to this question, but toxic relationships may have one or more of the following characteristics:
Control. One person in the relationship acts possessively, telling the other person what to do, how to dress, or which friends they can and can’t hang out with.
Dependence. One person claims they can’t live without the other. It’s flattering to think someone is so attached to you, but it’s actually an unhealthy sign.
Dishonesty. In an unhealthy relationship, one or both people may lie to the other—about where they are going, what they are doing, or even just how they feel.
Intimidation. When one person says things to intimidate or threaten the other, it’s time to call it quits. (Ironically, they may also threaten to break up with you if you don’t play by their rules—which is exactly what you should do!) “If a person ever threatens to end the relationship, then it may be that they don’t really care about you as much as they say,” says Dan Rice, M.Ed., the director of training at Answer, a sex ed organization at Rutgers University.
Verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. Being talked to in ways intended to tear you down is never OK. Neither is being shoved or hit or pushed into sexual situations that you’re not ready for.
Gaslighting. One person manipulates the other into thinking there is something wrong with them by repeatedly saying false things (“You are so stupid” or “You’re such a loser”) until that person starts believing the lies. This form of emotional manipulation is a major red flag to leave a relationship.
Your First Step
If you feel uncomfortable or unsafe in your relationship, talking with another person can help you get perspective on what’s going on. A friend can be a good sounding board about whether ending a relationship is the right thing to do, but it’s important to listen to your gut and remember that you’re doing this for your own well-being. Sharing your thoughts with someone you trust will help you feel supported and more confident in whatever decision you make.
What’s the Best Thing to Say?
There is no set formula for how to have a break-up conversation, but simple is probably best. You can say something along the lines of, “This isn’t working for me and I need to end this relationship.” Or you may want to explain your reasons for breaking up. The other person may try to convince you to change your mind—they may promise that they’ll change or tell you that you’re “crazy” and that nothing is wrong with your relationship. They might also try and make you feel guilty: “How can you be so mean to me?” That’s an example of emotional manipulation, and possibly one of the reasons you decided to break up in the first place! Don’t get sucked into this type of conversation. You can say something like, “I am sorry you feel that way, but I have thought a lot about it and this is what is best for me right now.”
If a face-to-face talk is too nerve-wracking, consider a phone conversation, writing a letter, or texting your feelings. (You can let the other person know that you’re really struggling to talk about this so you wrote down your feelings and want them to read it first, and then you can discuss.) You might also find it useful to write out a list of reasons why you’re breaking up before having the conversation. This way, if you feel any pressure to stay, you can glance at that paper as a reminder.
When to Break Up
Timing is everything. Ending a relationship can consume a lot of emotional and physical energy, so unless it’s abusive or you feel threatened and need to end things immediately, pick a time to tell the other person when you’re not in the middle of something super-important, like final exams.
Once you’ve had the conversation, have something planned for yourself to take your mind off things. Known as “self-care,” these activities make you feel good emotionally, physically, and spiritually. (Read more about it here: goodtherapy.org) Seeing a funny movie, getting your nails painted, going to a sports game–these are all ways to raise your mood.
Sometimes, it can feel unsafe or intimidating to tell the other person it’s over. If you’re worried, ask a friend to be there with you when you end the relationship. Or arrange to have someone pick you up at a certain time, in case the other person makes it difficult to leave. And if the other person refuses to stop calling or trying to see you after the break-up, tell a trusted adult. In cases where the other person is behaving in inappropriate ways—threatening or trying to scare you—your parents or another adult can help you file a report with local law enforcement.
Leaving an uncomfortable relationship is probably going to be, well, uncomfortable. But you will feel relieved and much happier once it is over. And remember, life is full of challenging situations that you will have to navigate. Being able to set boundaries and communicate your needs is a skill you will use again and again.
Special thanks to our experts: Brian Jory, Ph.D., director of family studies, Berry College, and author of Cupid on Trial – What We Learn About Love When Loving Gets Tough; Dan Rice, M.Ed., director of training, Answer.