Long-term relationships: how to know when it's time to go

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By psychologist Angie Willcocks

In my time as a psychologist, I've been asked many questions about relationships, and regular Mining Family Matters readers will know that I'm quite optimistic that most relationships can be improved with time and attention (and sometimes counselling).

There are times, however, when ending the relationship is the right thing to do.

Of course, there are no black and white answers about staying and leaving, so how do you know when a relationship really is over? I'll start with my big three: 

  • The first and most clear-cut reason for ending a relationship is abuse. Physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse IS NEVER OKAY in any relationship, for any reason. It might sound silly, but I've talked to many women* who aren't sure if their relationship is 'abusive' or not. In my experience, if you're not sure, it probably is abusive to some degree. For more information about what makes a relationship abusive click here. Information on where to get help is listed at the end of this column.
  • A second, relatively clear-cut reason is a repeat of problematic and relationship-harming behaviour, like abuse, cheating, gambling, or drug and alcohol misuse. If you've worked through these issues once or twice and it happens again, it's time to consider ending the relationship.
  • The third of my 'big three' reasons is a partner's unwillingness to accept children from a previous relationship. I know this is a tough one because adults deserve to be happy and they do deserve a second chance at love, but not accepting a partner's children (when they are children, not adults) is a sign of controlling and potentially abusive behaviour and is extremely damaging to children.

Other factors to consider

In addition to my 'big three', other reasons to consider ending a relationship are:

  • Not liking who your partner is;
  • Doing all the work in the relationship;
  • Frequent arguments that are not resolved;
  • Ongoing differences in life goals or priorities;
  • Constantly feeling alone and distant when you're with your partner;
  • Endless 'tough times'. Of course we all know that even good relationships have tough times. In healthy relationships, the tough times are patches of weeks to months at the most, and they're usually related to stressors that are easy to pinpoint, like a difficult financial time, illness or job loss. Tough times that go on from months to years and aren't related to external pressures like those mentioned should ring alarm bells. Endless tough times are a reason to consider ending a relationship, especially if one or both of you has tried addressing the problems with no lasting success.

Falling out of love

A word on "falling out of love", which is a common reason given for considering ending a relationship. I don't think this is necessarily a reason to end a marriage or long-term relationship. I once heard an old (happily married) couple interviewed. The interviewer asked what had kept the couple together for so long, and the woman answered: "We've never been out of love with each other at the same time." I love this answer because I think it shows the reality of long-term relationships - they're not about being in love the whole time. They are about commitment. There are times when one person 'carries' the relationship with their love and goodwill to their partner. The woman's answer also illustrates that being 'in love' and  'out of love' are only temporary states for long-term, happy and healthy relationships. So being 'out of love' is not necessarily a reason to leave, it's a reason to pull your finger out and give your relationship some TLC and consider getting some professional couple's counselling.

No perfect time to go

If you do decide to end your relationship, it's important to know that there will never be a perfect time to go. I once had a client who was determined to leave her marriage but kept waiting for the 'right time'. It took a couple of years before she realised there would never be a right time, with three kids in the family it was always  going to be one of their birthdays, or her birthday, or Mother's Day, or Father's Day, or Christmas, Easter ... you get the idea. Once she realised this, she left.

More information

For more information on separation, go to

For more information on where to get help for leaving a violent or abusive relationship, visit www.1800respect.org.au or call the National Domestic Violence line on 1800 200 526.

* I know that men also suffer abuse in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships; I have mentioned women particularly here because they make up the large majority of my clientele.

To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.

Angie Willcocks is a registered psychologist with a private practice in Adelaide – for details about Skype consultations please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. She’s an expert in tackling issues such as depression, anxiety, postnatal depression, child sleep routines and relationship difficulties. She has a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Psychology and a Masters of Counselling Psychology. She is also the co-author of The Sensible Sleep Solution: a guide to sleep in your baby’s first year, which can be ordered from her website www.angiewillcocks.com.