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6 Signs of a Deteriorating Relationship

  • People show their true feelings in subtle ways

Key points

  • Breakups happen gradually, not suddenly.
  • Emotional detachment is a key mechanism for reducing interdependence.
  • Breakups are more likely when people feel like their partners are less responsive to good news or self-disclosures.
  • Rather than just verbal clues, nonverbal clues are especially noticeable signs of a deteriorating relationship.

When a friend calls and surprises you by saying that they and their partner broke up last night, a relationship’s end might seem like a sudden, discrete event. On the contrary, the end of a relationship tends to occur gradually. Slowly, in quiet ways, relationships unravel. How does this happen? Instead of nurturing the interdependence that defines a committed relationship, one or both romantic partners start turning away from their partner.

Relationship endings begin with mental independence.

Healthy relationships are characterized by a weaving together of lives. Over time, people begin to think of their partner as part of themselves: Their goals are integrated with their partner; their emotions reflect their partner’s feelings. They may still enjoy their own hobbies or activities, but partners in healthy relationships have lives that are oriented around each other, and they want it that way.

A breakup conversation is rarely spontaneous. People think about leaving their relationships before they end a relationship. In their stressful state of ambivalence, they might simultaneously see good reasons for staying and good reasons for leaving (Joel et al., 2018).

Signs that a relationship may be ending

Along with these thoughts, certain behaviors—thematically connected by increased independence—may be “signs” that the relationship may soon be over.

  1. Emotional detachment: How emotionally close does your partner feel to you? How close do you feel to your romantic partner? Prospective studies show that lower feelings of love and less closeness at one time predict a greater likelihood of breaking up (Park et al., 2021). A metric of emotional closeness may serve as a metric of relationship health. As such, when people start emotionally detaching, it may be a sign that they are preparing to end a relationship.
  2. Negative spontaneous reactions: We hold conscious ideas about our partner (favorable or unfavorable), but we also hold implicit ideas about our partners. These deeply held views about a partner and a relationship may be especially revealing about a relationship’s future. When there’s no time for them to think through a response, what does your partner think of your competence, how fun you are to be around, how you compare to others? What’s your gut impression of your partner? While these gut-level impressions may be hard to see, they might appear in certain circumstances and be quite revealing. Indeed, longitudinal work suggests that negative implicit partner impressions (perhaps especially those who hold low positive, high negative impressions) may be more at risk for a breakup (Lee et al., 2010).
  3. Less supportive reactions to the good news: When something exciting happens, if you share the news with your partner, do they celebrate? How do you react when your partner shares their good news? Good news reactions may give some insight into the future stability of a relationship. Partners who perceive less constructive reactions to their good news disclosures (e.g., less enthusiastic, more destructive, or passive) are more likely to break up within the next few months compared to those who genuinely and energetically celebrate (Gable et al., 2010).

    Sharing good news to someone who doesn’t react as you hoped is a depressing experience. Imagine how a less satisfying reaction to your good news might shape your future behavior: The next time you have good news, would you even want to share it? This could create further distance, further jeopardizing the relationship.
  4. Fewer positive non-verbal behaviors: If you’ve ever thought that “how” you say something can reveal more than “what” you say, you’ve tapped into some keen relationship insights. An analysis of the predictive power of non-verbal and verbal behaviors showed that positive non-verbal behaviors (e.g., smiles, leaning in, encouragement) predict higher relationship satisfaction later on (Faure et al., 2018). To what extent does your partner provide non-verbal support to you? Do you do the same? If not, it could be a sign of a weakening relationship.
  5. Lack of self-disclosure: How often do you share your feelings with your partner? Do they share their feelings with you? The exchange of intimate feelings, a process called emotional self-disclosure, can support relationship health. One person speaks, and the other listens intently, offers validation, and shows they care. The responsiveness of the listener is critical to self-disclosure, building relationship health (Laurenceau et al., 1998). When people no longer share their important feelings with a partner or share them with someone else instead, the partners lose a chance to build their relationship. When this becomes a habit, it could suggest someone is oriented away from a relationship.
  6. Deteriorating illusions: How awesome is your partner? Relationships may persist in part because people hold slightly unrealistic ideas about their partners. They see them as better than they really are, especially on abstract traits or characteristics that are particularly important to them. Meta-analysis suggests that positive illusions are key predictors of relationship stability, and a lack thereof may be a sign that a relationship is critically suffering (Le et al., 2010).

Signs that someone is unhappy in a relationship and that their commitment is waning may come in many forms. The above list includes behaviors that might be hard to notice in the moment but, upon consideration (or in hindsight), might seem more obvious. This may be one of the hard aspects of relationship breakups, particularly when they are very one-sided.

One person may be thinking their detachment is obvious; the other might not realize the extent of their mental separation. If you’re familiar with “Exile” by Taylor Swift and Bon Iver, the point is made clear. He says, “You never gave a warning sign,” and she says, “I gave so many signs….” It could be that he just didn’t want to see them.

The above article, written by Theresa E. DiDonato Ph.D., was published in Psychology Today,

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