The idea that the love in your relationship has expired is a difficult thought for one to stomach. When love turns into hate and fondness into bitterness, and when negative sentiment override seems to be dominating your interactions, it’s likely a good time to question whether or not it’s worth staying in a relationship that simply may not be making you (or your partner) happy.
In these instances, the best thing partners can do is to walk away. In a recent interview, John Gottman was asked what advice he would give his younger self. His response? “Get out of bad relationships sooner.”
Sometimes our relationships get us so turned around that we can’t tell if it’s time to leave or not. But our breakthrough research with thousands of couples has discovered six telltale signs that can predict — with over 94% accuracy — whether a couple will break up within the next four years:
Sign #1: The Story of Us
The easiest way to tell if a relationship has passed its expiration date is to listen to the Story of Us couples share about their relationship’s history, philosophy, struggles, and achievements. If their memories are mostly positive, even with a fair dose of negativity regarding regrettable incidents, then there’s hope. But if negativity takes over—if it becomes difficult, even impossible, to remember the good times and couples focus only on the bad — then that’s what we call the “Story of Us Switch.”
Think of this like a light switch. When it is turned on, love fills the relationship with positive stories, keeping irritability and emotional distance in the closet, even if there are some difficulties. But when the light is turned off, negativity takes over and the Four Horsemen likely charge in constantly. This is when partners begin to assume the worst about each other.
We call this a switch because we rarely saw a range of memories in our research. Couples seemed to either have joyful memories (even with a mix of negativity), or entirely bitter ones.
Whether the light is turned on or off is determined by the cumulative trust or betrayal each partner remembers.
The future success of your relationship is determined by the way in which you tell your Story of Us. If your relationship has all five telltale signs below, it may be time to break up. In addition, the brief quiz at the end, adapted from the book What Makes Love Last? will give you a sense of whether to stay in your relationship or consider moving on.
Sign #2: Weak Fondness and Admiration
There is a major difference between couples who last and couples who separate. Happy couples tell their Story of Us with warmth, affection, and respect for each other.
Couples who break up tend to recall unfavorable first impressions with their partners. The words they use to describe their relationship feel cold. The story unhappy couples tell will focus on a major blowup rather than a fun time or happy memory.
Sign #3: Me-ness Dominates We-ness
Happy couples tell their stories with a sense of “we-ness,” or of solidarity. You get the feeling that they are “in this together.” Often their words show similar beliefs, values, and goals.
When the solidarity and togetherness is lost, partners often describe their history in a way that emphasizes how it affected them individually (“me-ness”), rather than as a couple. They prioritize getting what they want and ignore their partner’s needs.
Conflict is inevitable in every relationship. Unhappy couples become gridlocked by these arguments because they are focusing on me, not we. When they each try to win, they become trapped in what we call the roach motel, where there is no solidarity in the relationship.
Sign #4: Impersonal Details of Partners
When couples have vivid and distinct memories of each other, it’s a sign that they understand and respect each other, and that they know each other well and do their best to be there for each other. It’s important to know what makes your partner sad or happy, or what your partner cares about.
Couples who lack this connection do not reminisce with humor or vivid memories. They talk about their history in an impersonal way, mentioning nothing specific about each other. It’s easy to hear that they have lost their Love Maps to each other’s hearts.
Sign #5: Relationship Struggles Push You Apart
Couples who talk about their history as chaotic are often unhappy. The stories they share are not about pulling together or learning from negative experiences, or of making light of them even if they were difficult at the time. It’s clear that the past troubles and conflicts did not strengthen their bond. It pushed them apart.
Happy couples, on the other hand, express with great pride their ability to overcome difficult times together. They glorify the struggle and talk about how it strengthened their bond. They were able to use it as a catalyst to grow closer together. When you talk to happy couples about the hardships they faced, you get a sense that they steered their own course together. These couples share profound meaning together and a life of purpose.
What matters is how couples interpret the negative and positive events in their history. Even if there are a number of negative events, happy couples can discuss how they grew together from those events—even if they resulted in a temporary disconnection.
Sign #6: The Relationship Falls Short of Your Expectations
It’s a clear sign a couple is at a risk of splitting when one partner expresses disappointment in how the relationship has ended up. When these partners recall choices in the past, they often express cynicism about long-term commitment. And when they make those cynical statements, they are short, and they don’t try to explain nuances of the situation.
Satisfied partners believe their relationship has met their expectations. A happy couple describes knowing that their partner was right for them, even if they faced some trouble along the way.
When we compared the stories of couples, those who would remain married and those who would split became very clear. If a relationship has all five telltale signs, then the negative switch has been made. Once the negative “Story of Us Switch” is clicked, it is very hard to reverse. Any intervention is most likely too late, even if one partner tries to make changes. At that point, it’s best for partner partners to let go and walk away to avoid suffering, and so that they can find happier and more stable relationships.