Sometimes a hunch is more than just a hunch: A new study suggests people are relatively good at predicting when their partner wants to end the relationship.
That’s the takeaway from a new study out of the Singapore Management University titled “When one’s partner wants out: Awareness, attachment anxiety and accuracy.”
Kenneth Tan, the co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of psychology at SMU, shared insight into why he was interested in studying people’s perception that a breakup might be looming.
“We know that when breakups happen, they could start off by one partner actively considering ending the relationship,” Tan told HuffPost. “But we know very little about whether people actually think that their partners are considering ending the relationship as well.”
“It is possible that those who suspect that their partner might be intending to break up may respond with breaking up first, but it begged the question: Are people even good at knowing what their partners might be thinking regarding ending the relationship?” said Tan, whose study was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
Tan and his team introduced a new concept to describe this dynamic: PPDC, or perceived partner dissolution consideration.
“We define PPDC as the extent to which individuals perceive their partner is thinking about implementing steps or plans to terminate their relationship,” Tan explained. “It is an adaptation of one’s own dissolution consideration, or the extent to which someone is thinking about implementing steps or plans to end their relationship.”
Tan stressed that dissolution consideration is a different metric from commitment. For instance, there could be a scenario where a partner is still committed to the relationship, but is giving some deep thought to relationship dissolution because they’re about to move to another country.
“And partners who are less committed might be less caring or have mixed feelings about wanting the relationship to continue, but it is different from actively considering the end of the relationship,” he said.
On its own, dissolution consideration represents “an existential threat to the relationship.”
People are “pretty accurate about their partner’s actual dissolution consideration”
To track how accurate people tend to be about sensing their partners’ dissolution consideration, Tan and his co-authors used a large sample of dating couples from a U.S. university. Accounting for tracking accuracy and directional bias, the team also recruited 235 dating couples from SMU who reported on their own dissolution considerations as well as PPDC, just as the U.S. couples did.
What did they find in the two groups?
“The good news is that people were pretty accurate about their partner’s actual dissolution consideration,” Tan said. “If their partners were reporting higher dissolution consideration than others, people picked up on that, [and] likewise for those who reported lower dissolution consideration.”
Attachment style made a difference, too. People with an anxious attachment style ― meaning the person may fear abandonment in relationships, and may struggle to feel secure in them ― were much better at gauging their partners’ dissolution consideration, compared to people with a secure attachment style.
It makes sense, Tan said, since people with an anxious attachment style “typically fear rejection and are hypervigilant about threats to the relationship.”
Unfortunately, anxiously attached people in the study also sometimes overestimated their partners’ actual desire to break up.
In follow-up work, Tan wants to examine how anxiously attached people might respond to PPDC: whether they’re more likely to try to reconnect with or reject their partner. The current study only looked at whether people were accurate about their partner’s dissolution consideration, and not about the likelihood of a breakup.
“We think that it’s possible that a preoccupation with PPDC might signal the potential end to a relationship: One partner might choose to end the relationship instead of salvaging it,” he said. “We’re excited to continue this line of research.”
While this subject may seem like a downer to study, Tan says there’s a positive takeaway for couples.
“Most people actually want their relationships to continue, hence being vigilant in accurately tracking PPDC,” he said.
If you’re concerned that your partner is considering breaking up, therapists have some advice
Worried that you may be in the dark about your partner’s dissolution consideration? Generally, a relationship is a two-way street, noted Alejandro Daniel Pina, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles.
“If someone is unhappy, that usually means both people are unhappy,” he told HuffPost. “Some couples specialists call relationships a dance, and if one of you is out of step, it will ultimately affect the other partner.”
It may also just be that you’re overthinking, said Michele Leno, a psychologist in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
“Before approaching your partner about your thoughts, consider the facts of the relationship: what you know versus what you think you know,” Leno told HuffPost.
You might want to consider how your past relationships color your thinking about this current one.
“Sometimes, if you’ve been left or ghosted, you can’t relax in any relationship,” Leno said. “Consider how this relationship is different from the previous one. If someone has abandoned you without warning, this usually says more about their own dysfunction than you.”
Whatever the issue, it’s best to bring up worries with your partner in order to narrow down the variables and find solutions, Pina said.
Otherwise, he said, “keeping your concerns to yourself will affect the dance and eventually get you both out of step.”