7 Subtle Signs You’re in the Wrong Relationship

Shannon Hilson

That sinking gut feeling you can’t seem to shake isn’t the only sign they’re not the one for you.

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(Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)

“Relationships are work.” It’s something we hear from the time we’re children — likely even from our own parents and grandparents — and with good reason. When relationships do manage to go the distance, it’s because the people involved are serious enough about making things work to really prioritize what they’re building together.

And I’ll be honest with you. Most of the time, it’s easy to do the work. Other times, it’s hard — really hard. Even if you adore the person you’re with, life gets tough sometimes and puts a strain on even the best relationships.

There’s a huge difference between putting rewarding, fulfilling work into a connection both you and your partner believe in and running yourself ragged, though. There’s no shame in leaving a relationship that isn’t serving the people involved, but it’s not always easy to tell you’re in one — especially when everyone else you know is insisting that you “just need to work at it.”

I was unhappily married to my ex for years before I finally realized fixing things between us wasn’t a matter of putting in enough work. We weren’t right for one another on any level, and if I’m honest with myself, the signs were always right there. They were just subtle hints, as opposed to big, screaming red flags snapping in the wind. Here are some prime examples.

1. You never feel completely relaxed.

When a relationship is brand new, it’s normal to feel a little reserved around your partner and to want to put your best face forward. You might not yet feel comfortable bringing up certain topics for discussion or letting the more difficult sides of your personality show. Or maybe you’re just concerned that they’ll judge you for being a grown woman who’s really into Disney. (Hey, I’m a big kid at heart, OK?)

The longer you’re together and the better you know one another, though, the more comfortable you should become. I can’t speak for my ex, but I can assure you that level of comfort you’re supposed to reach never materialized for me. Not even after we’d been married for years. I never stopped feeling like I had to be on my best behavior and hide parts of my core identity from him. And that was a first because I normally adapt to new people and relationships pretty quickly.

I now realize that was my gut telling me this wasn’t the right guy for me and that he would never appreciate me for who I was.

When you’re with the right person, not only are you comfortable with them, but you feel like you can exhale on a level you can’t around most other people. You can talk to them about almost anything and be the barest, truest version of yourself. If you’re lucky, you might even get to share your weird Disney obsession with them because they have one, too. (Disney+ marathons are favorite pastimes for my current husband and me.)

2. Your personal growth is in a holding pattern.

The right partner has a way of bringing out the best in you and helping you grow on several different levels. Not only do they see you and accept you, but you can count on them to make you feel encouraged and supported in everything that you do. They’re good at pushing you toward your goals and reminding you that the things you want are worth hustling for, as well.

One of the earliest signs that some of my past partners weren’t right for me was how my personal growth slowed to a crawl while I was with them, only to magically return once we broke up. At the time, I just wrote it off as a phase or a funk I was going through. I never really got that I was spending so much of my energy trying to fix bad relationships that I had none left to invest in myself.

One of the things I like most about my relationship with my current husband was how productive I became when we got together. Unlike some of the other people I’d been with, he cared what I was into and seemed to like hearing me talk about my dreams and watching me make progress toward them. His interest in my creativity and goals helped me rediscover my interest in them, which gave me the push I needed to pursue them seriously.

3. You can picture a future without them.

When you try to imagine a future without your partner, how easy is it to do? Does that projected version of your life lack in some fundamental way, or does it actually look better than it would if they were there? While your sense of internal joy and satisfaction with your life shouldn’t be all about your partner, you should feel like they bring something irreplaceable to your life that makes it better.

Although it took me a long time to be honest with myself about it, one of the earliest signs I had that I shouldn’t have married my first husband was how I pictured my own future. When I’d fantasize about the things I wanted to accomplish or the places I wanted to go, he wasn’t really part of the picture. It’s not that actively didn’t want to be married to him (or at least not yet.) I just instinctively factored him out of the equation, almost without realizing it.

Things are completely different in my current relationship. When I daydream about my own future, I’m not there alone or with some faceless placeholder figure who could be anybody. My current husband’s a huge part of how I naturally see things playing out, and the big picture doesn’t look quite as bright when I try to see it without him.

4. You’re never on the same page.

No two people are going to agree on absolutely everything. Even well-matched couples are going to have their differences, and that’s perfectly normal. It’s ultimately your feelings about those differences that make your partner right or wrong for you.

So, how do you feel about the ways your partner differs from you? Are you able to respect and accept those differences, or do they consistently cause friction between the two of you? My first husband and I agreed on so little, I actually couldn’t tell you today why I was with him in the first place.

For instance, he was a vegetarian who thought meat-eaters were ignorant, mouth-breathing murderers, while I was a meat-eater who — at the time — found vegetarianism silly and fussy. It wasn’t just that we were different. It was that we each found the other’s point of view unworthy of respect, acceptance, and consideration. The result is that we spent our entire relationship passive-aggressively trying to change each other. And that is just one of many examples I could give you.

When you’re with the right person, you don’t feel that way about your partner — like they’re off their rocker for having the beliefs, values, and interests that they do. The ways that you’re different may even make your relationship stronger.

5. You often still feel lonely.

Relationships that aren’t a good fit have this weird way of making you feel lonelier than you ever would if you were single. You’re often not sure what exactly is wrong. You just know you’re not connected to this person on the level that you should be, and it’s frustrating on a soul level that’s hard to explain.

I think my first husband felt this a lot earlier on in the relationship than I did. One of the earliest clues I had was that he never seemed to want to spend extended amounts of time alone with me. For instance, if we planned a vacation, he always wanted to invite other people along, like his parents or some other family member. He even tried to get me to agree to let his mother and stepfather come along with us on a honeymoon cruise to Mexico my father gifted us at our wedding.

I now realize that we had so little in common, he actually found the idea of making conversation and spending time with only me for multiple days on end daunting. When you’re going through the motions of your daily lives, you’re both usually busy enough that you don’t notice you rarely talk or spend quality time together.

You’ll notice that you feel lonely, though. And, over time, it becomes the kind of loneliness that’s deeply depressing. Other people in your life might try to tell you it’s all in your head because “relationships take work,” but you’ll know better deep down.

6. You look outside of your relationship a lot.

When I was younger, I had a lot of trouble being faithful in a couple of my past relationships, particularly my first marriage. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me because cheating was very out of synch with my value system and the type of person I knew myself to be deep down. My father was a cheater, so I knew it was probably learned behavior. I just didn’t yet get why I was copying behavior I’d found so abhorrent as a child.

Eventually, I realized that my heart usually knew when I was with the wrong person before I did. I just didn’t know how to be honest with myself and find healthier ways to cope with what I was feeling — like simply breaking up with the other person so I could date whomever I wanted or perhaps considering an open relationship instead. It finally dawned on me when I realized I’d felt zero urge to behave the same way in happy, healthy relationships.

So — assuming you know you’re a monogamous person who genuinely wants to be in a committed, permanent relationship with one person — how often do you find yourself looking over your partner’s shoulder at other people? How often do you catch yourself wishing you were free to explore other possibilities?

I’m not talking about finding others objectively attractive because everyone does that. I’m talking about wondering obsessively whether a relationship with Person X or Y would be better than the relationship you have with your partner. I’m talking about listening to your friends talk about happy relationships they might be in and feeling envious of what they have because yours doesn’t even begin to measure up. Those are pretty clear signs your current partner isn’t meeting your needs.

7. You’re vaguely unhappy for reasons you don’t understand.

Existing in a relationship that isn’t right for you is a very draining experience, but it often takes a while to figure out what’s really going on. You just know you don’t feel as positive or hopeful as you used to. It’s like someone drained all the color out of the world, and you can’t remember what it used to look like no matter how hard you try. This feeling becomes more and more pronounced, the longer you stay with the person.

I’ve struggled with clinical depression my entire life, so when I started feeling hopeless and sad on a near-daily basis while I was with my ex-husband, other people in my life assumed I was the problem. After all, the guy didn’t hit me or deliberately mistreat me. He was even one of those agreeable, mild-mannered people that everyone likes, so it had to be that I was just selfish, spoiled, and ungrateful.

Except I noticed something interesting about my moods. They’d lift when he wasn’t around, sometimes considerably.

In the event I had an entire day (or longer) to myself, I’d feel damned near elated and very excited about all the things I’d be able to do without him around. I could write or play video games all day without him complaining that I wasn’t productive enough. I could wear makeup or perfume without him whining that he “hates that stuff.” I could cook myself a steak without him commenting that he thought he would vomit from the smell.

When I eventually made the connection and asked for a divorce after several years of unhappiness, I felt like I’d been let out of prison on parole or something. I still struggle with depression, but I’m not unhappy every day by a long shot. And when I do feel a little down, spending time with my current husband cheers me up instead of bringing me down further.

Ultimately, you’re the only one who can say for sure whether you’re with the wrong person or simply going through a rough patch with the right one. However, signs like the above will always be there, cluing you into the truth, even if you’re not ready to see them yet.

Good relationships don’t make you feel exhausted to the bone. Good partners don’t make you feel like you’re never heard, appreciated, or valued on any level. They feel worth fighting for, even when the going gets rough.

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Professional copywriter, blogger, critic, and journalist. Evergreen content on self-improvement, fitness, food, relationships, dating, freelancing, and productivity. Occasional hot takes on news, trending topics, movies, music, and television.

Monterey, CA
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