Should I Break Up? Step-by-Step Guide to Overcome Ambivalence

When to break up is a daunting question, isn’t it?

And the funny thing is that, as psychological research shows, the people least equipped to well diagnose their relationships are the partners themselves (MacDonald, Ross, 1999).

It’s a daunting decision.
And it’s good to get some expert resources to help.
By the end of this article, you will likely know whether to break up or stay together and work on your relationship.

When to Breakup

This article is not a list of questions I randomly came up with.

It’s a guide based on the work and clinical experience of Mira Kirshenbaum and it adds on top my research on science-based relationship literature.

This article is here to help. But the final decision maker, of course, is you.

Why You Need to Decide

If you are not sure whether or not you should leave or stay in your relationship, you are in a situation of ambivalence.
Being ambivalent is bad in many ways:

  1. You are not committing to your relationship, likely making it worse
  2. You do a disservice to both you, your partner, and the relationship
  3. You destroy your self-esteem (it says to yourself you’re indecisive)

Ambivalence is, on average, more of an issue for women, since they tend to be more risk and loss averse.
But independently of gender, everyone will gain by sitting down for one hour or two and coming up with a decision.

How to Use This Guide

A common mistake people make when they want to decide whether to break up or not is weighing the cons and the pros.

You will rarely reach a decision like that.

Much better is a diagnostic approach instead, which means looking at key areas of the relationship and looking for a big strike.

One strike in a single major cue means you must go.
On the other hand, no major negative strike and good positive signs mean you have solid fundamentals and you can work on them.

So let’s start.

Diagnostic Questions

First of all, the basics:

A pattern of violence, substance addiction, and complete disregard for your health and safety are immediate grounds for breaking up.
No further ink is needed.

If there are no such obvious red flags, then here are the signs for you to weigh:

#1. Was It Ever Great?

When things between you two were good, were they really good?

The answer to this question is important because you can often fix what’s broken.
But you cannot fix what never worked.

If you look back at your past and see a lukewarm story, then you don’t expect any magic and, if you want magic, you will probably be happier ending your relationship.

#2. Are There Still Positive Emotions?

Deep down, do you still like your partner, and does he like you?

This is an important question because some people have been so conditioned to repeat the “but I love him (/her)” mantra that they end up losing track of their present feelings.

Pause for a second then, and if you realize that your love is a ghost you will be happier with a breakup. It’s indeed very rare you will start liking and loving again after you’ve lost the positive feelings.

#3. Has Your Subconscious Decided?

Have you taken concrete steps towards a life without your partner?

Some people have decided on an unconscious level to end the relationship, but cannot yet fully process that decision rationally.

Examples of unconscious decisions are:

  • Applying to jobs in different cities (or accepting a job)
  • Starting divorce papers
  • Affairs you don’t even care about hiding

If you answer yes the answer to when to break up is “now”.

#4. If There Were No Consequences…

If your parents wouldn’t be disappointed, if kids weren’t there, if you weren’t ashamed, if God said you can… Would you leave?

Too many people judge their relationship based on the impact it us on other people.

And other people are important. But for a correct diagnosis, first of all, you need to think about you and yourself only.

This question will help you obtain that clarity without morals and external influences involved.
A “no” is a very positive sign that your relationship might be too good to leave.

#5. Do You Look Forward to Something Together?

Do you share, or look forward to sharing any activity which makes you feel close and happy?

Think about it:

If you share positive experiences that make you forget all your problems and make you feel there’s still love in the relationship, then you might be onto something.

At the very least, there’s a chance that by fixing the issue you can have an overall happy relationship.
A “no” here still doesn’t doom your relationship, but at the very least you should be able to discover (or re-discover) such an activity. If you aren’t even able to find or rediscover a pleasurable activity to do together, then it’s time to break up.

#6. Can You Get Your Main Needs Met?

Can you get your reasonable needs without a power struggle or being completely ignored?

If anything that is dear to you requires a huge power struggle then chances are this is not a relationship based on love and mutual support.

Of course, the focus here is on fundamental needs. Not whether or not you get your favorite ice cream every day.
But if, say, time together with your parents is a huge need of yours, does he at least try to accommodate some time together?

And if you really want children but your partner doesn’t, then that’s another obvious sign.

If he could not care less about your main needs, you should break up with him/her.

#7. Does Your Partner Stand in The Way?

Does your partner block any need, goal or dream you’d be unsatisfied not to pursue?

Imagine you’re old and grey.

Looking back at your life, would you feel that your life was not satisfying if you didn’t pursue something that means a lot to you? That’s the kind of need we are talking about here.

If your partner stands in the way or vetoes that option then you will know you need to break up.

For example:
You’re unhappy at your job and you dream of starting your own company. But your wife threatens to leave you if you quit. Then you should break up with her.

#8. Is There Support & Interest For What Matters To You?

Does he show interest and concrete support for what’s important to you?

This is the other side of the coin for the above question.

If he’s interested and supportive of what matters to you or what you’re trying to achieve, then you have a partner that is there when it counts.
And unless you find any other major strikes, you should probably stop thinking about the breakup because you have a relationship that is too good to leave.

#9. Is There a Shared Sense of Mission?

Does your partner share your same dreams and ambitions, or actively takes part in them?

The next step would not just be a supportive partner, but one who shares the same goals and works alongside with you.

Pay attention here though: if it’s just about launching a company, then you’re business partners. And if it’s about winning X trophy, then you’re done after you achieve it.
The best goals and dreams are deep and non-time-bound (ie.: spreading ideals, making the world a better place, etc.).

#10. Can You Talk About What Matters?

Can you openly and freely discuss issues, fears, dreams, solutions.. ?

There are many ways your partner can frustrate your attempt to communicate issues that are important to you.

They include:

  • Stonewalling
  • Change topic
  • Dismiss it and say it’s not important
  • Pretend to listen while not really listening

Whatever the style, if you can never talk about what’s important to you, then things will hardly ever get better and you should break up.

#11. Acknowledgment, Action & Results

Does your partner see or admit your problems as a couple? If yes, does he take effective action?

Maybe your partner can talk, but can he acknowledge there are important issues in your relationship that you want to address?

Some men and women are so defensive and ego-fragile that they can’t admit there is a problem.
With these partners, you are not going to fix any problem.

And is he taking action? If he’s taking action, are the results making the relationship better?
If he keeps failing to change for the better the last step should be to change with the help of a therapist.

#12. Is Emotional Intimacy Painful?

Does it feel that getting emotionally close often results in pain for you?

Kirshenbaum says it’s normal to occasionally get hurt when getting close to someone.
But if you feel hurt too often and it seems your partner’s main interest in getting close is to harm, then it’s a relationship where you cannot be close. And you’ll be happier to leave.

Distance should never be safer than closeness

#13. Affection, Touching & Sex

Do you both want to touch each other and make efforts to touch each other?

Sex is an indicator of health in a relationship.

In relationships that are not going well, you can predict there’s less lovemaking than there used to be.
And a lack of craving touch for long stretches of time is a deep sign of alienation.

Here’s the answer, then: If you have gone a few months without touching, if you don’t feel like touching and you don’t see an imminent end to it, then you should break up.

#14. Is Sexual Attraction Strong?

Are you attracted to your partner in a unique, different way than to anyone else?

Most of the related literature seems to convene that there isn’t such thing as great enough sex to salvage a relationship that doesn’t have anything else.

But if you are attracted to your partner in a way that you are not attracted to anyone else, then that’s something special. And if you don’t have any other major strike that tells you to break up now, you should stay and work on the rest.

#15. Are Your Differences Too Big?

Are there irreconcilable personality differences that make a happy shared life together?

Differences are OK.

But some differences can loom too large.
By irreconcilable differences, I don’t mean typical gender differences -overblown by books such as Men Are From Mars– or big by society’s standards.

It simply means that the differences go at the core of who you are and how you imagine a happy life.
For example, one could prefer city life and another prefer rural life. And that’s OK… Unless it goes to the core of how you see the perfect life.
If one dream of a rural lifestyle and the other cannot live away from the city, then that’s the kind of irreconcilable difference that makes a breakup the best solution.

Your relationships should reflect your idea of life, not the other way around

Conversely, if there are no core differences:

#16. Are Your Similarities Too Big to Ignore?

Do you feel that deep down your partner is like you in some respect that’s important to you?

A deeply shared similarity that makes us feel good is a strong sign that your relationship might be too good to leave.

What do I mean by that?

Liking rafting is not good enough. But if you both like rafting because you both love a life full of wild emotions, discoveries, and thrill-seeking, then that’s deep.

Why is it important?
Because a deep similarity about a core aspect of our personality helps overcome hundreds of differences. And if you answer yes here, you know that it’s worth staying in your relationship.

#17. Is It Still Fun?

Do you still have fun together?

If you still have fun together, that’s a strong sign you should not break up but work on your relationship.

Fun is an often underestimated, but crucial element of a healthy relationship, a happy family, and also one of the most important elements of love.

#18. What Are The Other Options?

Look at the reality of breaking up and ask yourself: does it still make sense?

Shouldn’t deciding when to break up be all about love and the two of you?

Up to a certain point, yes.

But relationships don’t happen in a vacuum and many people who misread the environment ended up making big mistakes.

Here’s the exercise, then: write down your options and lifestyles in case of a breakup. Then write down your fears. Then research a bit or ask around.
Looking at reality you might realize working on your relationship is better than breaking up.

A woman might find out her sister’s offer to host her wasn’t that real after all.
And some men divorce thinking they’ll still be able to see the children while dating younger women. And they’re often wrong.

#19. Are You Losing Self-Respect?

Is your partner making you feel so bad that you started believing those accusations yourself?

Does your partner make you feel bad?

Is he making feel bad about aspects of your personality that are important to you?
And are you start losing self-confidence in those areas?

If you answered yes to all of them, then you might actually be in a toxic relationship with an abusive partner.

And chances are that you’ll be happy to break up.

#20. Are You Avoiding Your Partner?

Are you actively trying to avoid your partner?

If your partner is so disrespectful and nasty that you are trying to limit contact with him, you have another terrible sign. Relationships should be a sanctuary of safety and support.

When you actively avoid your lover you have an enemy in your house, not a partner. And you should break up.

#21. What If He Were Gone?

If you were to break up, would you lose and miss something important in your life?

If there is nothing about him you would miss, then it’s time to break up.

If there is something about who he is and does for you that really matters in your life, that’s an important positive sign (but not enough to say it’s too good to stay).

#22. If All Problems Disappeared…

If all the problems in your relationship were solved today, would you be happy to stay?

If you’re not sure you want to stay even if nothing were wrong, then you’re not happy with your partner or your relationship.
And you should break up with him.

Wait, Read This Before You Break Up!

Please note that these questions take for granted:

  1. You communicated well to your partner what your issues are
  2. He is aware of how important they are for you.

If you’re not sure, tell him:

You: “I love you and want to keep loving you, but this current situation is destroying our relationship and I’m losing my feelings for you.
You gotta help me to change that or I am afraid for our future as a couple. Are you willing to help me?

The day after, ask him how much he thinks the issue matters to you from 1 to 10.
If he says 9 or 10, then every single question fully applies.


This article helps you to decide whether you should break up or get back to work on your relationship.

Most of these questions go to the core of what a good relationship means. If you got even a single negative answer to any core question, then your only option is to bring the issue to your partner, in full clarity, and give it another last try for a couple of months.
Failed that, you should really break up.

This article also doesn’t deal with the complexities and costs of divorce, for which you might want to consult a lawyer.

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