Pulling the Plug on Love

Relationships, unlike cars, don't come with warranties. No matter how many candlelight dinners or passionate phone conversations you rack up, there is always a chance that someday you'll refer to your significant other as your "ex."

No relationship is perfect, but when yours becomes a source of pain rather than pleasure, it might be time to call it quits and move on. How can you tell when it's time to pull the plug? Read on.

The No-Brainer When is it time to give back the Beck CDs and reclaim the red fuzzy sweater? If you're being physically or verbally abused, the relationship is over. There's no excuse for being slapped around or constantly put down by someone else, especially when that person is supposed to care for you.

You forgive the fact that he never calls because he plays in a cool band. She always cuts you down in front of your friends, but your family loves her. Sound familiar? Most people instinctively know when their relationship is over, but they make superficial excuses to stay together, says Laurie Schur, a licensed clinical social worker and associate at the Pacific Institute for Women's Health in Los Angeles, CA. "Pay attention to your intuition," says Schur, "Don't measure the relationship by external markers if it isn't working for you."

The Fight Club Issues like religion, work ethics, and drug and alcohol use can make otherwise compatible couples feel like strangers over time.

Ruth, a 23-year old Web designer in San Francisco, CA, recently broke up with her boyfriend. "He's Christian and has a very strict idea of how people should live their lives," she explains. "I was raised Jewish. Over time, he started criticizing my religion, my ethical standards, and eventually my family. When he said we were all going to hell, I finally broke up with him," she says.

When do differences in lifestyle become irreconcilable? One sure sign is if they are the constant source of unresolved arguments. In a healthy relationship, mutual understanding should level out your differences, says Schur.

Me First Schur stresses the importance of separating your personal needs from problems with the relationship. "It's a mistake to think, 'You're supposed to make me happy and fill all my needs,'" she says. Instead, focus on meeting your needs outside of the relationship. If you feel good about yourself (you're happy with your work or school, friends, and health) but your relationship is going nowhere, it's probably time to move on.

Is it Courtship or Dating? Most relationships fall into one of two categories, says Richard Wessler, PhD, who runs a private practice at Cognitive Psychotherapy Services in New York City. Courtship relationships work toward long-term compatibility and marriage. Dating relationships are more about companionship and fun and are an end in and of themselves.

"It makes sense to work through issues in a courtship relationship," says Wessler, "But don't spend a lot of energy working through a dating relationship. Often times, it's too much energy to patch something up, that is, if you can patch it up at all."

The End of the Affair Feeling like it's time to say goodbye? Avoiding these traps can make your breakup a little less painful.

Get Real: Although a trial separation may sound less painful then a breakup, time apart often isn't enough to clear up deep problems. "Separating almost never works," says Wessler, "Relationships don't get repaired by not seeing the other person. They just get more time."

When you do break up, resist the temptation to downshift into friendship "'Let's be friends' is a real killer," Wessler says, "because essentially, it's a demotion. Nobody likes to be demoted." You may think you can neutralize your romantic feelings, but you're really just creating more pain for both of you.

Instead, make the breakup quick, and don't weigh yourself down with guilt. "When you break up with someone, you're just acknowledging that he or she is not a good match for you," he says, "Don't dwell on hurting another person's feelings or worry if they're going to become angry."

The Blame Game: "People either are made for each other or they're not. If they're not, it's not anyone's fault," says Schur. Avoid blaming or attacking your ex, as that will just draw out the time it takes to move on. "Just say this person had some good qualities but you've grown past that," she adds.

Future Shock Most importantly, when a relationship ends, give yourself time alone to sort out what happened. Although giving up the security of a relationship can be tough, don't let that keep you in a bad relationship. "People stay in bad relationships because they don't know what's in store for them when they get out," says Wessler. "It's very unlikely that someone in his or her twenties won't find another date until he or she is ninety."