Should You Break Up?

In a pandemic, it’s hard to tell when, and if, to break up. Are you frustrated with him because it’s the apocalypse, or are you frustrated with him because you’re incompatible?

That’s a hard thing to parse. You started dating that person for a reason, but things have changed. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s them. Or maybe this experience of quarantine and prolonged anxiety is just water freezing in hairline cracks.

“Probably the two worst times to make a big, far-reaching decision are when you are feeling really bad, and feeling really good,” said Peter Pearson, a founder of the Couples Institute in Menlo Park, Calif. “Most of the time the biggest decisions require the head and heart working together.”

To help you doubters take an objective look, we asked experts about the questions they’d pose to patients. This amalgam is not any sort of when-to-dump equation. But pay attention to your answers. And, if you do decide to break up, do so kindly, but firmly. It’s not fair to waffle about “down the line” plans.

If you see your partner as a life raft right now, you’re not alone. It doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed.

But if you’re looking for a benchmark for when to leave — a vaccine, an anniversary — you’re probably not in it for the long haul, said Melissa Thoen, the clinical director at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York.

This doesn’t mean you have to jump ship immediately: Leases are real and there’s a pandemic going on. “It’s OK to not break up if you both understand that it’s a relationship of convenience with an expiration date,” said Sara Alexander, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco.

But it’s only OK if you’re both on the same page. Otherwise, if they’re just a buoy to get you through to low tide, walk away. It’s the kindest thing to do.

If you’re fighting more than you were before lockdown, that’s not necessarily a red flag. Only you know how you feel things go when you disagree.

“A relationship without conflict is one that is not authentic,” said Kate Balestrieri, a licensed psychologist and founder of Modern Intimacy, with practices in Beverly Hills, Calif., Chicago and Miami. “What makes or breaks a relationship is how the couple fights.”

That’s hard to see, first hand. But do you feel as though you’ve reached a deeper understanding after you argue? Or do your fights just stop because you’ve worn yourselves out?

Also, do you recognize the version of yourself who is fighting? If not, and if you’re angry, jealous or act out of character, that’s a real warning sign. No one should mess with your head enough that you become someone you don’t like.

Finally, if you keep locking horns over the same topics, you’re not moving forward. Fights about new things mean that you’ve resolved old snarls together. How long do you want to keep running headfirst into a tree?

Sometimes, you don’t get to do your thing when you want to do your thing. That’s super normal. Suck it up.

But feeling like you’re in danger of losing your stance when you disagree “is a red flag,” said Jenny TeGrotenhuis, a certified clinical trauma professional based in Kennewick, Wash.

One way to gage this: Start taking note of how you feel in your shared space, even if you have your own apartments. “Even if your partner is an ‘amazing person’ you might somehow always end up feeling small around them,” said Anna Nicholaides, the owner of Philadelphia Couples Therapy.

This can be a hard thing to notice. If you’ve been in a extractive relationship for a long time, your own feelings might be opaque to you. But repeated annoyances about household chores will be salt on old wounds.

If you feel like your wishes are always coming second, they probably are.

It’s a good exercise to hear how this sounds to the people who know you the best. So ask a close friend to describe your relationship to you, as if it were theirs. Does it sound like it’s a healthy and supportive one to you? Would you tell them to wait until the dust settles, or would you tell them to call it quits.

If your friends don’t like your partner, that probably means your partner isn’t good for you. If your partner’s friends don’t like you, you’re probably not being the greatest version of yourself either.

Breaking up is one way to change your life by taking something out of it. That loss, no matter how milquetoast your partner is, will have jagged edges for a while. In a pandemic, when loneliness abounds, it might well be harder.

But if the fear of that fleeting pain is the thing that’s keeping you around, maybe just get it over with. There is so much in flux right now that you might actually have the freedom to leave a city you don’t love without raising eyebrows.

“I really think that one day we ‘know’ in our hearts that we are done,” Ms. Alexander said. “It’s like an ‘event.’”

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