What are the outward behaviors that a couple display when they are about to break up?
December 23, 2009 9:28 AM   Subscribe

What are the outward behaviors that a couple display when they are about to break up?

I'm looking for, if possible, scholarly articles on any outward behaviours characteristically displayed by couples as a prelude to breaking up. I'm referring to public behaviours rather than private.
posted by tel3path to Human Relations (13 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: John Gottman and his colleagues from the University of Washington have done some work on behaviors of couples in successful vs. unsuccessful relationships. Some of it was featured in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink. There's a long excerpt here. A brief sample:
“In one study, we were watching newlyweds, and what often happened with the couples who ended up in divorce is that when one partner would ask for credit, the other spouse wouldn’t give it.” … On a technical level, she was measuring the amount of positive and negative emotion, because one of Gottman’s findings is that for a marriage to survive, the ratio of positive to negative emotion in a given encounter has to be at least five to one.
posted by mbrubeck at 9:38 AM on December 23, 2009 [9 favorites]

Best answer: More Gottman in the first act of this 2004 episode of This American Life. This is less about pre-breakup behavior and more about the signs that indicate whether or not a marriage will end in divorce. I think it could count as "public" behavior though. He studies how they fight, specifically, but also just how they speak to each other in general.

From the link: "Ira visits marital researcher John Gottman, who's part of a generation of researchers that have revolutionized the way we see marriage by observing successful and unsuccessful marriages and trying to figure out what the successful happy ones are doing that the ones who end up in divorce are not. Marriage research and links to marriage education programs for couples are online at www.smartmarriages.com."
posted by juliplease at 9:56 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I came in to rep for Gottman's study also, because I personally found it to be true -- specifically the eye-rolling.
posted by lhall at 10:09 AM on December 23, 2009

Best answer: No definitive answer, just something I've found to be true with my acquaintances: when one or both of the partners is overly invested in scoring points off the other with put-downs and jokes at their expense. I guess it's all part of the contempt thing, but that's how I've seen it manifest time and time again.
posted by gaspode at 10:15 AM on December 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

I had a few friends recently break up and I would see things like this:

• A lot more likely to bicker and start fights about things in public that used to be only in private.

• A desire to go on double dates and then split up m/f so as to not have to talk to the partner. Anytime they did talk, it would be off to the side for a long time (presumably fighting again)

Within 3 months the couples were broken up.
posted by herbaliser at 10:32 AM on December 23, 2009

From my brother-in-law and his ex-wife: brief angry looks, quickly stifled to hide them from me as a spectator.
posted by KRS at 12:58 PM on December 23, 2009

Another vote for Gottmann's four horsemen (criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, contempt). But criticism and contempt are the behaviors you're likely to see in public.

My ex and I were extremely well-behaved in public, up to and even after we split up. People were shocked because we hid it so well.

In retrospect, there were a few tells:

* Loving couples tend to check in on each other during parties, and depending on their expressiveness, might touch each other gently. We would separate, not get involved in each other's conversations, and never touch.

* My ex would tell mildly embarrassing stories about me or my family. It's one thing to be self-deprecating, and another to be deprecated by someone else. It's another contempt marker. At the very least, if you're going to tell funny stories about someone else, you should start by telling similar stories about yourself to indicate that you aren't setting yourself above others, or make eye contact with the subject of the story to see if you're making them uncomfortable.

* If I made a comment about being uncomfortable, she would laugh it off. ==> Stonewalling plus more contempt. Saying things like "You're no fun", or "don't be such a wet blanket" are similar signs.

* Eye rolling (mentioned above) is another sign of contempt.

* Look at how they respond to each other's statements. If one person says something that has emotional weight, does the other person validate that statement before giving their own point of view? If not, they're not communicating very effectively, and you have one of those negative interactions that tends to wear down the relationship.

To me, if you see one of the partners behaving in a disrespectful way towards anyone, it's an indication that they might be capable of treating their partner disrespectfully.
posted by Araucaria at 1:20 PM on December 23, 2009 [23 favorites]

If you're specifically looking for just prior to break-up signs, I guess you could summarize it as "lack of any consideration for the feelings of the other person". As in, treating the other person worse than they would treat an absolute stranger.
posted by Araucaria at 1:29 PM on December 23, 2009 [5 favorites]

Cryptic Facebook status-updates.
(or, for those late to the game, cryptic one-line Livejournal entries)
posted by K.P. at 3:44 PM on December 23, 2009 [10 favorites]

In retrospect, there were a few tells:

These things that Araucaria has listed, these are certainly things I would look for as tells, without question.
posted by davejay at 7:39 PM on December 23, 2009

Response by poster: Very interesting and food for thought. I notice that the anecdotes and personal experiences are in line with Gottman's research findings, too.

posted by tel3path at 3:10 PM on December 24, 2009

I recall the bottom line of the stuff from Blink was any behavior that indicated "contempt" for the other partner (like eye-rolling).

I saw it in my own brother's marriage, where after ten years his wife suddenly changed behaviors and would openly mock him in front of me and their children and I knew it was basically over for them.
posted by mathowie at 10:06 AM on December 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Granted, this is an extreme example, but Prince Charles and Princess Diana showed some visible strains in their marriage before they got divorced - no touching, no eye contact, tight smiles... There was one incident in which he bent forward to kiss her and she recoiled.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:15 PM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

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