We live in an avoidant culture. We text instead of talk to each other. We email instead of calling a meeting. We ghost instead of explaining ourselves. And sometimes we act shady instead of initiating a breakup.
While I’m certainly not going to claim a flawless record for total interpersonal clarity, and you probably can’t either, I hate the extended “wtf is going on?” death of so many modern-day romances. While ghosting has been widely discussed as a way of ending short-term flings, unexplained fading out of bona fide relationships seems to be just as common.
Such was the case for Taylor, a 30-year-old talent agent whom I interviewed for a book I’m writing about relationships. She described the “one month of tension” preceding the demise of her romance, in which she could sense that her boyfriend was pulling away. He continually said that everything was fine; however, “I thought that maybe he was cheating,” she says. “I was looking around for clues. I wanted him to say, ‘Of course I wouldn’t cheat.’ Instead, he took the pragmatic approach, dismissing my fears rationally.” So, Taylor let it go.
But when her boyfriend began flirting with someone else in front of her at a holiday party, Taylor finally snapped. “It ended in a huge fight,” she recalled. “It was tense. He was about to leave for a work trip and suggested a two-week break, but I wanted to figure it out first. So, we took the weekend.” Taylor thought of ways to work on their relationship during those two days of alone time; her now-ex finally admitted that he wanted to make that break permanent.
In a perfect world, a breakup is mutual. In an avoidant world, no one wants to initiate the conflict, the break, the end, so people have instead gotten into the habit of putting off breakups. However, instead of sidestepping pain, putting off a breakup only extends it. Dealing with the questions and anxiety of a relationship’s slow deterioration is far worse than efficiently cutting the line.
You might, someday, have a partner who wants out but will not tell you. (Or perhaps this scenario sounds very familiar.) Here are some big signs that your partner is withdrawing and you might need to have an honest discussion about where things are headed.
He stops accounting for his time.
Part of the reason you may feel the rift in your relationship before a breakup is because your partner might suddenly be lost for large chunks of time. He’s no longer texting you updates about what he’s doing or calling you as he’s driving home from work. Instead of your having default dinner plans, he might slowly start to bow out on nightly visits to see you and then stop accounting for his time at all.
When your partner wants you to think the best of him, he will explain any behaviors that may give you pause. He will be transparent about his actions; he will let you know when he’s hanging with his buddies or when he’s going to have to take a weekend trip home. He wants you to be comfortable.
If, on the other hand, he doesn’t care about your opinion anymore — or, worse, he wants you to see him in a more negative light — he’ll simply start disappearing in an unapologetic manner.
She drags her feet or stops making plans with you.
Someone who wants to break up, but isn’t pulling the plug, does not want to put dates on the calendar. So, if you suggest buying tickets to her favorite band’s concert a couple of months in advance, she might just say, “Eh, I’d rather not,” or make some excuse for not wanting to go. If you mention needing to plan a getaway during the holiday season, she’ll keep putting off choosing a hotel or booking the flight.
The reason isn’t necessarily that your significant other has no intention of following through on the plans; she may or may not go through with them at the last minute, or when you’re nearly running out of time to book the date. However, she does want the out for as long as possible — and if she chooses to go through with a breakup, she doesn’t want additional messy ties to a future she has no intention of being part of indefinitely.
He avoids conflict or argues incessantly.
Arguments are the result of conflicts and disagreements (shocker, I know). But while very few among us would label these spats as “fun,” they still serve a purpose for most couples. Arguing or debating helps us to see our partner’s viewpoint and ultimately move forward in the relationship in a way that makes both parties happier. In some ways, arguments help us to feel more fully seen, heard, and understood.
“If you’re not fighting, ever, it ain’t real” is something I’ve told many men and women. If you used to have healthy disagreements that suddenly stop, then it’s cause for concern. Your partner may feel that he no longer needs to see your side and resolve issues between you, because he doesn’t plan on sticking around.
Another cause for concern is picking tiny fights, where a molehill becomes a mountain. If he’s criticizing the way you pronounce a word or calling out the amount of energy you spend on friends, then he might be attempting to exacerbate differences between you two. He might be hoping that you pull the plug on the relationship, so he doesn’t have to.
She withholds physical intimacy.
Physical intimacy is sort of like the instinctual glue that holds loving couples together. Touch can cement feelings of affection and intimacy, even after your relationship has turned briefly sour. Think of how many couples enjoy make-up sex, for instance, or even how great it can feel to hold your partner’s hand after an argument or misunderstanding.
It’s hard to be close to someone you’re thinking of leaving, but those quiet yet seismic shifts in the physical relationship are often the warning signs of something deeper. When I ask recently single men and women to tell me how they initially knew something was wrong in their relationship, they often turn to repeated rifts in physical intimacy.
I often tell people with relationship concerns to listen to their gut. It can be unsettling to feel like your partner is pulling away, but don’t indulge the silence and continue to brush your fears under the rug. Don’t jump to conclusions. If you think something is wrong or your partner might want a break, have a direct conversation about it. Highlight examples of behaviors that don’t seem right, or concern you.
Offer support if he or she is going through a tough time — after all, that’s what relationships are all about. But don’t forget to calmly explain how you feel, as well, not just what you see, especially if your significant other denies that there’s a problem.
Remember that a good partner will validate your feelings and want you to feel secure within the relationship. Anything less isn’t built to last.