Hopefully, for your sake, you got introduced to heartbreak in your teens. In many ways, having your heart stomped on and cut in two is better during a period of your life in which it's socially acceptable to cry while writing in a diary, because, a) it prepares you for adult breakups, and b) you're less likely to go on an alcoholic binge and spend a solid week coming down after you get dumped in year ten.
There's a difference, though, between that immediate kind of heartbreak and the slow-burning one you experience in your twenties and onward until you die. This isn't the kind you have the emotional intelligence to experience at secondary school. It's a particular kind of adult heartbreak—the one that happens when the spitting fires of your early romance have burned to ash, when you become nothing more than furniture in each other's lives. Even now, reading this, you might be thinking, Nope, haven't had this, doesn't apply, in which case you're one of those promise-ring Christians who ends up married forever to the first person you kissed in high school, or it's waiting for you out there.
This road to a breakup is long and lonely, filled with a melange of individually unpleasant and almost thrillingly upsetting events. Today we're going to walk you through some of them. If you recognize any of the signs, then you might want to prepare yourself for the impending death of your relationship. But you probably already know it's coming, don't you.
The Arguments Are More Frequent and Pointless
Fighting is a pretty natural part of relationships. There are always outliers: Those weird straight-backed unblinking married couples who've "never had a row," who when you meet them—at weddings or parties or at your mom's open-house Christmas bash, hands tangled together, faces curiously similar—always freak you out in a way you can't quite put a finger on, as if they can only love each other when they are murdering crows.
But there's a near imperceptible shift between fighting over something ("You won't commit! You never clean the litter tray unless I ask you to do it! You keep moaning about us being too poor, but you keep buying coke!") and fighting over nothing ("Why did you order from that Chinese restaurant? You know its food is shit. Who loads the dishwasher like that?"). Increasingly these altercations emerge from the way they drink their morning coffee or laugh or the way they misuse that really-quite-everyday word repeatedly, and then, ah, yes. The realization that they haven't actually "done" anything. They merely are.
The Sex Makes You Want to Be Sick
When you realize you've only been able to get off during sex by thinking about being with someone else the entire time, it's already too late. That person's body has lost all sexuality to you. But not in a comforting let's-grow-old-together-our-bond-transcends-bodies way—more that it feels like a foreign object that makes no sense any longer. You will notice yourself becoming more detached from the experience, enforcing a kissing ban like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, not because it could encourage intimacy, but because the most natural PG show of affection is somehow too offensive. Only genitals touching is passable now. It's just genitals on genitals from here on out. Any position that involves you facing away from your partner, like doggy, becomes a staple. Oral will see you through these times, but God forbid your lover glances up and makes eye contact with you.
Luckily, sex often happens at night, so you'll have plenty of time to stare at the wall in the dark, thinking about what it all means. Sex—the only free joy we're given in this cheerless life—turning bad is usually the first sign everything is going to shit, and considering it's the most visceral—physical, mental, and emotional—you won't be able to just ignore it and hope it goes away!
You Start to Not Care About Your Partner's Thoughts or Feelings
Fun visualization exercise: 1. Imagine your partner by a window, white glaring light streaming in from a mild but bright summer's day, the specks of dust that float around us through the air picked out in white and light gray. You have just texted this person, calling him or her, an "asshole," and it has led to tears. Weeping and weeping and weeping. You have made your partner feel like this. Face so red it is orange and with tears. You did this. How do you feel?
2. You hear a bus engine revving. You know that sound, don't you, of one loud vehicle among the quiet suburban sounds of traffic. You can, just about, hear children playing in the distance, a large red ball being thrown between them. Your significant other lies dead and blue-faced in the road, a single trickle of near the mouth, limbs in a fragmented heap. He or she tried to catch the bus and ran into the bus instead and died. Eyes still open but glassy. Zoom in. Zoom in on the face you once held and whispered "I love you" into. How do you feel?
3. The springs are creaking in that unmistakeable way. Work was quiet so you left early—you walked home because it was such a nice day, headphones in and listening to music, one perfect hour of bliss where you didn't check or read your text messages, just wandered along the sidewalk, occasionally running your hand through hedges and gardens, idly picking small stems of leaves from bushes—and now you're home, and a little clammy from the walk and maybe you need a shower, but you climb the stairs and—hold on, that spring sound. Sur-sqick sur sqick sur sqick. Is that—? So you burst into your bedroom: Your partner—your boyfriend or girlfriend, it doesn't matter—is having passionate naked sex with someone else. And not that sex you two have these days—that lights off, is-it-over-yet no-oral intercourse. No. Like: Gagged, with his or her hands tied together. There are flavored-lube sachets everywhere. Like, this isn't just sex: This is that kind of kinky sex you haven't had since the hotel on the last night in Barcelona, summer 2013. How do you feel?
Mainly As: Good! Good.
Mainly Bs: Bad. Bad.
You Literally Cannot Think of a Single Thing to Say
Ever had a sad brunch? You would think this is impossible—you live for brunch; brunch is the best meal of the week—but then you lift your eyes across the table and see the person you tell yourself you are in love with and… nothing. "So what's—" you say, picking up the salt shaker, tipping it almost but not quite enough so that the crystals inside it tip and skid but don't actually make their way onto the table, "What's… what did your mom say?" and he or she says "hmm" and you say, "What was your mom saying? On the phone the other day. Didn't your mom call?" And he or she says "oh" and "yes" and "yeah," and then a pause, exhaling air, making a sound like the wind whistling through the hollow void where your heart once was, and he or she says: "Oh, nothing. No she was just talking about the dog." And then you sit in silence for five minutes until the food turns up, at which point you will say, "Oh, food." The food has saved you both, and you only realize when the bill arrives that it didn't even cross your mind to put it on Instagram. When brunch is sad, you know it's over. Avoid the sad brunch.
Thinking About the Future Is Just Something You Avoid
You booked a vacation with your partner, you idiot, and now it's looming ominously over your year like the first anniversary of a close family member's death. You start mentally scoping out which single adequate friend would be free to take your partner's space, if it came to it; the deposit you struggled to put down from your miserable salary would be wasted if you cancel the reservation.
If you haven't booked, neither of you will bring it up because then you are, for better or worse, committed to spending two weeks solidly together covered in sunscreen, which might give the sheen-like illusion of things being back to normal—it's hard to stay too mad at each other when you're in a piazza in Rome drinking a strong beer and watching the dusky sun come down as you wait for a plate of spaghetti and mussels—but quickly shatters on the second-to-last night when one of you can't find sunglasses, and it descends into a two-hour screaming match and one of you slamming your hotel door, going for a big furious foreign walk, then coming back timidly 45 minutes later and having to borrow a keycard from reception to get back into your room. Then you share the flight home in silence.
Basically, don't dare speak about going away together in case you break the delicate china, that is, the remains of your relationship.
When Something Good Happens, You Don't Tell Your Partner First
An underrated service provided by a relationship is having someone who is obliged to receive your excitable call when you get a pay raise, or your sister is getting married, or you've just seen a cute dog in the street, because let's face it: No one else in your life likes you enough to provide that level of emotional support. Slowly you find yourself texting anyone else—a best friend, your mom, that reasonably attractive person you're only platonically texting—first when anything major happens. The same goes for if something awful happens. See, what's happening here is you're subconsciously preparing yourself for life after you make the inevitable break, when you're the only person who likes and hates yourself the most.
Again, Hugging or Touching Your Partner Makes You Feel an All Over Body Shudder
Remember that time you came home and saw your partner in the kitchen, crying—some distant relative died or something—and you felt that little jolt of tenderness you used to feel and leaned in for a hug, and it sort of felt natural and also very much did not. Maybe you even though: This is literally just like holding a huge piece of crying meat.
You Fantasize About Life on Your Own or a Life with Literally Anyone Else
Hmm, you think, dreaming of a lazy Sunday morning to yourself, where you can go for that jog you keep promising yourself you'll do, have a cup of coffee while staring out at the river that runs through your backyard, wander to a sports bar for the early kick off and a burger, meet up with those friends you haven't seen in forever because your partner doesn't get along with them. God, wouldn't it be good if you lived alone? You could adopt a dog. Or: You could move to New York for a bit. Or: You've been meaning to try becoming a vegan, haven't you? Cook more food for yourself, not the same "I only like pasta, omelettes, and takeout curry" diet. You could be so free. You could buy flowers and fill the front room with them. Get around to watching Game of Thrones. Buy an old record player and fill your life with music, and not those shitty Soundcloud mixes. God: Wouldn't it be good if your partner… no, don't think it. But wouldn't it be good if your partner just… died?
You Don't Actually Care About Making Up After Fights That Much
You used to make up after fights by begging, crying, or buying flowers, but now you just say your obligatory, "Fine, sorry," and get on with watching old Apprentice season three episodes on YouTube. Ooh, that Hopkins!
I mean, as signs that your relationship is dying go, capital-C cheating is a pretty good meter read that things aren't the best they could be. Like: If you go out, get drunk and have sex with someone else, it's quite hard to move on from that. But little-c cheating counts, too, and it's more insidious, so you don't notice you're doing it: You're texting that work colleague after hours, you're in a lengthy Facebook chat chain with someone you sort of fancy, you're following your ex on Instagram again. You haven't done anything, technically—but cheat, couldn't you, if you wanted to? You have the means, and you have someone who is borderline backup material. The engine is started, and the lights are turned on. You just need to touch the gas pedal and ruin your life with one small press of your foot.
You End Up Doing Quasi-Romantic Activities with Your Friends Instead of Your Partner So More New Experiences Don't End Up in the Trash
Out on one of your sullen walks, you both breeze past the new restaurant that's opened in the neighborhood. "Looks nice," one of you says, and the other says, "hmm." Olden days, those good old days—when your junk was on fire; when you craved your partner's body and company, when you needed this person, always, at all times; when you couldn't spend a day alone, without that tender face, that soft just-right touch—you would have said, "We should go there." Maybe you still do—you talk about it, later, in maybe-we-should-go terms, knowing you won't, but the idea is there—it's floated—until when, six weeks later, you still haven't been and end up there with your friends. The chicken, you report back later at home, was "fine," so the two of you resolve never to actually go there together—but more likely you see a nice new sourdough-pizza place and immediately think of two or three friends you would rather go there with instead, so you text the group and get it all locked in for this Wednesday before you've even walked home in silence. Think about it like this: Going for a meal with your partner, now, at this busted stage of the relationship, is another experience that's going to be in the bank of evenings you don't think about any longer. It's just a waste of money.
You Are Basically Only Staying with Your Partner Because You Live Together and Still Have Eight Months Left on Your Lease
Listen, I am sympathetic to this because we all, don't we, live lives subject to the constant control of a landlord and leases, and we're all scared of emailing the guy to ask what the penalties might be, possibly, maybe, for terminating the lease early, if we had to, if we absolutely had to. But that's not enough reason to stay together. Moving in is a big step for most couples—it is, really, that half-step between "going out" and "legitimately being married forever." But if it goes wrong, the excitement of that first couples trip to IKEA to buy book shelves you still haven't assembled yet and an aloe plant for the bathroom has faded, and now all the two of you have left is a particular spot on the sofa you both like and two separate morning routines that interlock without ever connecting, and your partner keeps getting back from work really late and always seem to be texting someone just slightly out of your eyeline, and you've been sleeping a couple nights at your sister's lately anyway, and you're counting the days down—only eight more paydays until you can look for somewhere else! Only 203 more days of this hell! But really, truly, if the administrative fear of having to return keys and get your deposit back and find somewhere else to live is the only bond still keeping you together, best to cut it off now.*
* Unless you have a really good deal on your rent. I'm serious. If you're paying less than 600 dollars a month in London, say, then it's worth you keeping your sham of a relationship alive for a little bit longer, probably.
The Very End, or Hovering Between Horrible Silence and We Need to Talk
If you can imagine your pleading spouse begging to be loved in your mind's eye, and can shake it away without care, then you're mere minutes away from a call or a text delivering the crushing final blow. At this point of peak sociopathy, you'd rather hold conversation with an inebriated, homeless person on a packed train than answer a text from your partner. And you couldn't give two shits either way. This happens because you feel like he or she is trapping you into conversations you don't want to be a part of, like being left to small talk with an acquaintance, while your real friend goes to the bathroom. Nothing in common, nothing worth saying, no need to interact, just sitting in the thick silence. When you do talk, it ends up being one of those "how is the weather…?" scenarios in which you almost break up but half-heartedly resolve to make an effort. Back to the silence. Back to the chat. On and on and on until the end.
Until you get locked into another two-year relationship, and it happens all over again!