At some point in nearly all of our romantic lives, we end up dating the wrong person. It’s nothing to be ashamed of — maybe you got swept up in the idea of how fun love seems, and went for it with someone who wasn’t right for you. Or maybe you were still in the process of learning about yourself and weren’t even sure what the right relationship for you would be like. No matter who you are or what you’re like, it’s pretty easy to find yourself stuck in a relationship that isn’t awful, but isn’t really working, either.
Realizing that you’re dating the wrong person can be one of the most confusing romantic problems to deal with, because there are no giant, explosive red flags; while we’re in the wrong relationship, we often think the fact that we’re happy some of the time is proof that things are working. A lot of the time, the fact that you were a bad match only becomes clear long after you’ve split up, when you’re trying to puzzle out what happened.
And even after we break up, it’s often hard to recognize that we couldn’t make things work just because the people involved weren’t on the same page; it often feels easier to blame outside forces (school, work), or your former partner. But despite the lack of huge red flags, there’s often a feeling — a frequent vibe of confusion, exhaustion and general frustration with the relationship — that indicates that you and your partner don’t have complimentary personalities, values or goals, and are simply a bad match.
How can you tell if you’re in the wrong relationship? There are a lot of ways — but these five signs are a solid starting point.
It takes a while to feel at ease with a new partner, and most of us feel anxious and eager to impress someone when we start dating. But we also usually develop some degree of comfort with a new partner soon after we get serious — and that comfort helps lay some of the groundwork for developing a lasting relationship. A 2015 UK survey of 2,000 couples found that those who had long-lasting, successful relationships generally felt comfortable enough around each other to do things like talk about exes or confide about health concerns. Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax called this intimacy “feel[ing] safe enough together to be your honest selves.”
How To Tell You Might Be In The Wrong Relationship: If you’ve been dating seriously for months and still feel so anxious you need to re-write all your texts five times before you send them, or feel afraid of making an off-the-cuff remark or silly joke to your partner because you fear they may not like it, it might not be just because they still give you butterflies — you might just be wrong for each other, and that’s why you can’t relax. If the idea of being your true self around your partner fills you with anxiety well after the “getting to know you” period, you may want to investigate why.
Maybe you were thinking that opposites attract — hey, it worked for Paula Abdul and that cartoon cat, right? Maybe your last ex was so similar to you that it made you feel bored, so you made sure your new partner was nothing like you. Good initiative! But that’s probably not an amazing plan if you’re looking to cultivate a serious relationship. A 2015 eHarmony survey found that not having enough in common was one of the most common reason couples split up (second only to feeling like their partner didn’t respect their autonomy).
How To Tell You Might Be In The Wrong Relationship: If you and your partner seem to have almost nothing in common — from your tastes in movies to your beliefs about how people should conduct themselves in relationships — you’re not only going to experience needless stress; you may also have a rough time bonding. Trying to build a life together with someone who doesn’t understand your jokes, your values, why you’re obsessed with your job or why you love your collection of vintage Pokemon figurines can be really difficult. If you’re making it work with your cartoon cat and you’re happy, good for you! But if you feel like you’re banging your head against the wall every time you try to make your partner see your point of view, it could be time to rethink your relationship.
We’d all like to make our partners happy — that’s part of the joy of being in a relationship. But if your partner actively believes that that’s your job (and is disappointed in you when you don’t “succeed”), it might be time to think long and hard about where things are going.
How To Tell You Might Be In The Wrong Relationship: As licensed marriage and family therapist Virginia Gilbert told The Huffington Post, if your partner blames all their bad moods on what you did or didn’t do, and claims that “[w]hatever you do or say to remedy the situation is inevitably wrong and makes your partner feel worse, which is, of course, your fault,” then “[t]his kind of relationship is poison; get out ASAP.” And this kind of behavior can indicate more than just being in a relationship that’s wrong for you; it might point to being stuck in a controlling relationship, or worse.
This seems obvious, but sometimes, it’s hard to notice while you’re in the middle of it — perhaps you’ve convinced yourself that you’re avoiding your partner because you’re stressed out at work, or that your partner is texting you instead of seeing you face-to-face because they have a lot going on right now. And it’s true, even some great relationships go through periods where partners can’t see each other as much as they’d like. But “like” is the keyword; if you’d like to see your partner more, but can’t make it work, that’s one thing. If you genuinely don’t want to hang around your partner, and only do it out of guilt, that’s another.
How To Tell You Might Be In The Wrong Relationship: If making time for your partner feels like a burden — and this could include hanging out as well as answering texts and emails — it’s worth examining those feelings. It’s also worth examining things if your partner makes demands on your time that go beyond what is reasonable — and know that only you can determine what is reasonable and feels good. So if your ideas about how much time you should spend together feel wildly mismatched, it might be time to reconsider things.
Yup, this is the bullet point where I just start to sound like your mom. Sorry in advance. But it’s true! Almost all couples have fights and conflicts, and do things that annoy each other. But ultimately, most of them are happier for having their partner in their life. I don’t mean happier in that abstract way that you can talk yourself into when trying to justify sticking out a relationship that you know is wrong (“Well, what is happiness, anyway, even? Do you think Virginia Woolf was happy when she was writing To The Lighthouse? Who is to say what happiness really looks like?”). I mean happy in that you see this person and your day gets better. You go on a date with your partner and you’re happier than you were when you were not with your partner. The idea of breaking up with them upsets you not because you’d be lonely, or because you’d feel like you weren’t worthwhile, but because your life is happier for having them in it.
How To Tell You Might Be In The Wrong Relationship: Research Dr. John Gottman studied numerous couples to find what traits precipitated breakups, and found that couples who stayed together typically had 20 positive interactions for every one negative interaction; couples who split up had five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. Which points to a simple (yet easy to miss) truth about romantic relationships: they’re supposed to make us happier.
So if being with your partner makes you feel a lot of things, but “happy” is rarely one of them, it’s worth it to really reassess your relationship. A lot of us hear phrases like “all relationships are work” and get confused, thinking that it means that it’s normal for a relationship to make you feel as exhausted and drained as you do coming home from working a double shift. But all people mean when they say relationships are “work” is that it’s not cool to go on autopilot and totally tune your partner out after a certain period of time together. They don’t mean that relationships you should make you feel so crappy, you feel like you should be getting paid to stay in them.
The good news is that being in the wrong relationship is no one’s fault; you both just made an honest mistake. The bad news is that, when you and a partner are essentially mismatched, there isn’t really any way to change or reconcile — the best thing to do is usually to recognize it for what it is, and to get out as compassionately as possible.