Nobody likes getting dumped, but when a breakup seems to come out of nowhere, it’s a particularly distressing development.
“I had no idea that she wasn’t happy,” says Roger, a 25-year-old living in St. Louis who was recently dumped by his girlfriend of six months. Roger isn’t his real name, by the way.
“One day, we were discussing our plans for the upcoming weekend. The next day, she said it wasn’t working out. Nothing had really changed, as far as I could tell.”
Getting dumped is part of dating, and it’s not fun for anyone—including the person doing the dumping. However, most breakups don’t come out of nowhere; they’re preceded by gradual changes in the relationship. We spoke with several therapists and relationship counselors to find out how to recognize the red flags of an incoming breakup.
1. The way you communicate with your partner changes.
“I’d say one of the biggest signs is avoidance or a decrease in the amount of contact that you used to have with this person,” says Rachel Wright, psychotherapist and therapeutic relationship coach at Wright Wellness Center. “For example, If you usually talk two times per day, and all of a sudden, it’s just a text or two…that could be a sign.”
We shouldn’t have to tell you that communication is a key factor in any relationship. According to a survey of 100 mental health professionals conducted by the dating site YourTango, communication problems are the most common factor leading to divorce. If your partner starts avoiding communication, that’s a red flag—and a potential indicator that they’re no longer invested in the relationship.
And if you’re no longer hanging out, well, the writing’s on the wall.
“If your partner starts ‘acting single,’ it’s a clear sign you’re going to be dumped,” says Jonathan Bennett, a certified counselor and relationship coach in Columbus, Ohio. “This could be hanging out in clubs with single friends, excluding you from traditional couples activities, or cropping you out of photos.”
Granted, most people won’t actually crop their significant others out of photos until they’ve actually gone through with the breakup, but if you suddenly disappear from your partner’s social media profiles, consider updating your Tinder profile.
2. Small issues start to become much more significant.
If you’re in a serious relationship with someone and they’re not quite sure how to end it, they may start looking for an excuse.
“[Your partner may start] to pick on trivial issues and become easily frustrated,” says Nicole Iannelli, a licensed mental health counselor and owner of Ocean State Mental Health Counseling in Rhode Island. “The unhappy partner may also become passive aggressive and present it as teasing.”
Obviously, that type of behavior has an immediate negative effect on the health of the relationship. It’s helpful to understand that passive aggression—and outright teasing—is often a reaction to the stress of a bad relationship. For your significant other, it’s a more socially acceptable means of conveying frustration or anger.
To be clear, that’s not an excuse. Our experts recommend addressing negative behavior as soon as it starts to affect your relationship. If your partner’s unwilling to change, it might be time to cut ties.
3. You feel your partner start to pull away.
Looking back, Roger says that he should have noticed when his partner was losing interest.
“We got together because we shared interest in things like sports and hobbies,” he says. “Over the last couple of weeks, those interests seemed to change. I’d try to get her to go hiking, for instance, and she’d say that it wasn’t really her thing. That was news to me—we’d gone hiking about a dozen times over the last several months.”
According to our experts, that was a clear sign that things weren’t going well.
“[The partner] may start to be indifferent to things that are important to the other person,” Iannelli says. “Whenever one person feels that their partner may be pulling away, it could definitely be a sign of their partner not being happy, and possibly not being ready to discuss it.”
4. Pay close attention to body language.
Any sudden change in behavior is a cause for concern, but that’s especially true when your significant other seems to purposely avoid intimacy.
“A decrease in the amount of affection, sexual or not, is an indicator,” says Wright. “In other words, your partner is showing an overall lack of effort in both the relationship and in being present in your life.”
Sometimes, “pulling away” is literal. If your partner has conflicted feelings about the future of your relationship, they won’t want to express physical affection—which is understandable, given the circumstances.
“Your partner’s distant body language can be a good indicator,” says Bennett. “For example, your partner might pull away when you try to cuddle. Also, if you both used to be very touchy, and that behavior stops, it’s a good sign your partner is losing interest.”
5. When in doubt, trust your intuition.
“The vibe of the relationship changes,” Bennett explains. “Your partner will start treating you more like a friend than a lover. Sex becomes infrequent, the conversations turn casual and less flirty, and the passion fades. He or she will be more physically and emotionally distant, too.”
In other words, if you feel yourself growing apart from your significant other, you’re probably not imagining it.
“I was pretty oblivious, but this was my most serious relationship in a while,” Roger says. “It’s always easier to see the signs after you’ve gone through with the breakup. I feel like I’ll know [what to look for] next time—and maybe I’ll be able to communicate better or something to save the relationship. If it’s worth saving, of course.”
That brings up a crucial point: What do you do if your relationship seems to be headed down the tubes, but you don’t want the relationship to end?
“Anytime someone feels that something is off in their relationship, it is always best to address this perception early in a very non-confrontational way,” Iannelli says. “The sooner these conversations happen, the less likely someone will be surprised by a relationship ending.”
“We aren’t taught in our culture how to be in healthy relationships,” Wright notes, “so if you haven’t learned how to do that, and it’s a relationship you love being in—try!”
That means opening up communication, addressing problems early, and avoiding the passive-aggressive tactics that can add stress to your relationship. If you’re not putting in effort to maintain a relationship with your partner, don’t be surprised if it eventually starts to fall apart.
Let’s say that you do get dumped; now what?
If you find yourself feeling hung up on your ex, you’re certainly not alone. According to one YourTango survey, 71 percent of people say that they think about their ex too much, and more than half of newly single respondents said that thinking about their ex prevents them from finding new love.
The good news is that science can help you move on. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, researchers tested three strategies for getting over a serious breakup. Groups of 24 heartbroken study participants were asked to try a specific strategy for a set period of time, at which point researchers would measure their emotional responses while showing them pictures of their exes (and yes, we’re pretty sure the study’s methodology qualifies as torture).
One group tried framing their exes in a negative light by thinking about the things they disliked about their former partners. The second group read supportive statements that encouraged them to accept their feelings. The third group tried to avoid thinking about their exes by thinking about a neutral subject (for instance, sports or weather). A fourth group acted as a control—they suffered normally without using any coping strategies.
Unsurprisingly, the first three groups fared better than the control group. Participants who were asked to think negatively about their exes were able to move on more quickly than the other groups but also experienced worse moods overall. Those bad feelings eventually subside, according to other research from the same authors.
With that in mind, if you’re hoping to get over your ex, you can move the process along by writing a list of their negative traits. If you start to feel nostalgic about the relationship, consult the list—but be prepared for the occasional mood swing.
We told Roger about the research and asked whether he’d try it.
“No, I’m good,” he says, laughing. “Actually, I moved on pretty quickly. I had another date set up, like, a week later. If someone doesn’t want to be with you, there’s no point in obsessing over it. I’m just glad that she ended it when she did, instead of staying in an unhealthy relationship for another couple of months. That would have really sucked.”
That’s an oddly positive takeaway, but we can appreciate the perspective. When a relationship’s over, it’s over, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing—but if you’re able to see the warning signs before you’re actually dumped, that’s even better.