You’ve been dating your S.O. for a while now, and things are starting to get serious. You’ve met their family, hung out with their friends, and their clothes frequently find their way into your hamper. If you haven’t already moved in together, you might be heavily considering it.
But even though you’re definitely in love and enjoy being around your partner, you may have had a few second thoughts about this special someone, wondering if some of their quirks, habits, or parts of their past are red flags.
Before you call it quits, chill. Virtually every paired-up partner has doubts about their significant other at some point along coupledom’s course, says Michael Batshaw, a psychotherapist and author of 51 Things You Should Know Before Getting Engaged. (Yep, even married people. Just ask your parents.) In fact, he believes that the real relationship doesn’t begin until the first major disappointment. "That’s the first doubt crisis—and all of a sudden you’re not as unbelievably in sync as you thought," Batshaw explains.
Whether a duo will last is determined by what both partners do in light of those doubts, he says. We went to the experts to find out the most common scenarios where those pesky second thoughts can find their way in, and whether they’re truly red flags for your relationship.
1. I feel attracted to someone else.
So you’re out at bar with your friends, and you find yourself in conversation with a rando cutie. And then hours later, you start to panic that your interest in someone else means you should jump ship.
Hold on there. As long as you don’t send out signals that you’re actually available, harmlessly flirting ain’t a thing, says Emily Brown, a Virginia-based social worker who helps couples navigate sticky relational issues. “At some point, especially in long-term relationships, you’re going to be attracted to other people.” Keep this in mind as well if you learn that your partner was seen flirting with another person.
On the other hand, if you get another person’s number and text innuendos back and forth, not saying a thing about it to your boyfriend or girlfriend, that’s not OK. Once you veer into secrecy, you’ve crossed a line, Brown says.
2. I'm not always satisfied in bed.
Maybe your partner isn’t exactly up to snuff between the sheets. (It happens.) Sexual compatibility—including the specifics of your desires as well as how often you want to get it on—is a huge factor in couples’ happiness, Batshaw says.
But just because someone isn’t constantly blowing your mind in the bedroom doesn’t mean you should ditch them ASAP, says marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar. “If your partner isn’t doing what you like, teach them,” she says. Remember, it’s up to you to communicate what you want. Often, asking and instructing—while keeping it playful and reserving judgment—is all it takes to get your S.O. up to speed, Bahar explains. Though if they really don’t improve over time or you feel like they aren’t respecting your needs or limits, that’s when it may just be a case of sexual mismatch, she adds.
Plus, if it’s really not working out in the bedroom, chances are it’s also not working out so well in the rest of the house (or outside of it). “Sex is a type of communication, and it tends to parallel the dynamic between partners in non-sexual realms,” Batshaw says. Translation: If your mate constantly chatters on about him or herself during everyday conversation, they’re apt to be equally selfish once the heavy petting begins.
3. I don't really get along with their family.
Research shows that having positive feelings toward your in-laws tends to bode for better accord and stronger ties in your relationship or marriage in the long run. However, if your potential kin aren't exactly warm and fuzzy toward you, it's totally normal. According to one survey, about 60 percent of women and 15 percent of men feel chronically stressed by a partner's family. "A certain level of doubt about whether you fit into your partner’s family is to be expected," Bahar says.
Just make sure your partner is willing to work with you to create some ground rules—like defending you from a family member’s cattiness or excessive criticism, negotiating how much time is spent with parents and siblings, or respecting your disinterest in religious traditions that conflict with your internal values. Then this inevitable discomfort might not be a reason to flee, Bahar says.
4. I'm worried I'm settling.
Wondering if you’re staying in a relationship that’s less than ideal because it's all you've ever known is a not only common, the fear is especially prevalent when partners are on the verge of a more serious commitment (think: engagement, marriage, moving in, or celebrating a multi-year anniversary). Often these hesitations are mere flare-ups of anticipation anxiety, or what Bahar calls the "grass-is-always-greener" phenomenon.
The false belief that there’s a perfect soul mate out there for us can also inflame fears of commitment, Bahar explains. Research shows that if we believe there's some flawlessly compatible "other" out there, we're more willing to flee rather than site down and work it out when relationship conflict arises Implicit theories of relationships: moderators of the link between conflict and commitment. Knee, C.R., Patrick, H., Vietor, N.A. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2004, Aug.;30(5):0146-1672. . If this happens, talk these feelings out with your mate, continue to explore where the both of you meet in terms of values, and try not to compare yourself to other couples, Bahar says.
However, if you have a consistent sense of discomfort around your partner, you find them repeatedly unwilling to communicate or accommodate your needs, or you’re just genuinely disinterested in them, that's not settling—those are legit concerns that could warrant a breakup, Bahar says.
Deal Breakers You Don't Have to Deal With
While it can be normal and healthy to question things in the course of a relationship, some situations are simply not OK. Examples include a partner who threatens you, controls you, makes you feel you’re in physical danger, or repeatedly crosses a line you’ve drawn (from peppering you with questions about something you aren’t comfortable talking about to not respecting when you say “no” in the bedroom).
Multiple counts of deception, dishonesty, or outright betrayal are also warning signs. (Yes, not telling the person you’re dating about the guy or gal you’re seeing on the side totally counts as a deal breaker.) Equally worthy of ending it: If your partner repeatedly puts you down, invalidates you, or belittles you, which qualifies as emotional abuse, Batshaw adds.
Of course, nobody’s perfect, and part of being in a relationship means dealing with your partner’s baggage. If one partner is struggling with an addiction, eating disorder, or other behavioral or mood issue, Bahar advises couples counseling, one-on-one therapy, or a finding a support group like Al-Anon or Codependents Anonymous. However, if you start suspecting your safety is endangered, that’s a sign to call it quits, Bahar says.
The Bottom Line
Doubt is a perfectly normal part of any relationship. It becomes problematic, though, when we avoid resolving it. You've heard it before, but it's worth repeating: Pretty much everything in a relationship boils down to communication, Batshaw says. It’s important to keep our partners informed about what we’re thinking so they know how to adapt. And vice versa: You’re just as responsible for listening and adjusting your behavior accordingly when your partner lets you know you’ve crossed a line.
Yes, research shows sharing some fundamental beliefs and values is essential to any relationship’s lasting potential, but you may need to examine your defensiveness if you find yourself inclined to quit a relationship simply because a partner respectfully offers a perspective that clashes with your own. Breaking up with someone because they said the wrong thing once or fell short of your expectations is a bit naïve, as is being disappointed when your partner disagrees with you, Bahar says.
Unless you’re in a clearly dangerous situation, knowing whether you should stay with your mate or consider other options requires observing how they act toward you over time and monitoring how you consistently feel as their partner—especially after you voice concerns or feelings of hurt, Batshaw says. And a relationship in which one partner repeatedly fails to accommodate the other’s needs and boundaries is not likely to last. But as long as couples can talk through tough issues, keep one another feeling safe and satisfied, and continue to share good times, they’re probably doing just fine.