You’ve been with someone for a few weeks (or months) when suddenly you start to feel like something is off. You can’t explain it, really. It’s nothing they’ve done, per se. It’s more like a tingly malaise that’s washed over you. You start to have an odd twinge in your stomach, some strange or unexplained anxiety. You can’t seem to ignore it.
What is up?
We’re often told to “follow our gut” — one of our subconscious mind’s tiny messengers, sent to tell us to check in about what’s going on — when it comes to romance. In reality, however, the little voice in your head can give you good information or mislead you, especially when it comes to whether to continue with or pull the plug on a relationship. That’s why it’s so crucial to understand the power of the subconscious mind and to have some workable strategies for sussing out the difference between your emotions and reality.
Before you call it quits, take these four illuminating steps.
1. Check in with your body.
In order to suss out whether this is fear of getting hurt, a rough patch, or truly the end of this relationship, we need to get into our bodies. Licensed psychotherapist and clinical sexologist Kristie Overstreet, Ph.D., says that knowledge often surfaces in the body before the brain.
Moushumi Ghose, MFT, a licensed sex therapist, agrees. “Our minds tell us we want something based on fear, self-protection, etc.,” she says. “Our bodies, on the other hand, tell us what we want based on truth.”
The easiest way to get in touch with your body? Meditate. It might sound a little woo-woo for your taste, but it works. Begin the habit of a five-to-10-minute meditation every single morning, right when you wake up. If you’re already anxious about your relationship (or anything else in particular), calming your mind may be challenging. A meditation app, like SimpleHabit and Headspace, with quick, simple-to-use, guided programs may help.
2. Take notes.
If you’re having weird gut feelings and are unsure how to proceed, do the most logical thing possible: Make a list of concrete reasons you’re feeling this way.
You don’t have to buy a Moleskine and wax poetic about your relationship issues — just toss some words or phrases in your Notes app. Start off messy to get your emotional juices flowing. You can, for example, type out feelings or observations that come to mind (such as “anxious,” “smells weird,” “inattentive,” “sad,” “happy most times,” “nice presents,” etc.) or things your partner has done that have bothered you (even if they weren’t outwardly “bad”). It doesn’t matter what you write as long as you’re being authentic to how you feel. Just get it all out where you can see it. It’s the first step in beginning to process your feelings in a logical way.
Once you have the free association down, start to make sense of it. If you’re wondering if you should break up, you can start to translate your feelings into more coherent thoughts. For instance, the word “anxiety” may become, “Whenever I’m about to see them, I don’t feel calm or excited. I feel anxious.” The phrase “smells weird” may become, “I want to like the way they smell, but it is off-putting and weird to me.” Add these to a “cons” list. On the pros side, you might write, “I’m happy most of the time we’re together, because they make me laugh” or “I like the way they play with my hair.”
“It’s helpful to see what is happening on paper so [you don’t succumb] to subjective feelings in the moment,” says sex and relationship therapist Jenni Skyler, Ph.D.
Next, focus in on the action itself: the choice of whether or not to end the relationship. Write down the reasons for and the reasons against. For example, “I’m breaking up with them because they make me anxious” would go in one column and “I’m not breaking up with them because they always want to go on exciting adventures” would go in the other.
3. Call on your friends.
In addition to loving you and wanting you to be happy, your friends aren’t inside your relationship and therefore are unaffected by the heady emotions that you ascribe to it. While there may be some bias in their advice (remember, your friends get most of their information about your relationship from you in the first place), they can be more objective than you.
Share the note you have in your phone with your best friends (Yes, you can do that. Here’s how). Let them have some time to think the contents over. Set up brunch or a walk to talk it out with them. Explain, in full, what is going on. Solicit their calm and collected advice. Giving ourselves the chance to process our rambling thoughts and feelings through someone else’s lens can provide greater clarity.
They key is to really listen to what they say. Often we ask for advice when what we seek is vindication of our feelings. Take the words they offer and sit with them. During your morning meditation, think on them or add them to the pros and cons list on your phone (unshare your friends first!).
4. Talk to your partner.
Before you make any irreversible decisions about your relationship, bring your partner into the discussion. “If your gut feeling says something is off, then ask [your partner about it],” Skyler says. “When we avoid communication in order to avoid conflict, we only end up avoiding the truth.”
This doesn’t need to look like a “Hey, I’m seriously thinking about breaking up with you” conversation, but rather a “I’ve been having these really strange feelings and I’d love to talk them out with you” conversation. With the latter, you’re inviting them to engage with you, be supportive in your time of need, and give you reassurance that you’re safe in this relationship.
Sometimes we just need to know our partner is there for us. If you’re too afraid to talk to them for fear of them lashing out, don’t feel comfortable discussing your feelings with them, or straight-up don’t trust them, well, add that to the list of reasons to end things. Because that is one heck of a red flag.
Relationships are complicated, but they shouldn’t be so emotionally tumultuous that fun and excitement all but go out the window. Think through your situation clearly, figure out if whatever this is is worth your time, and make the choice that feels right in your head and your gut.