Should you break up with your partner? It's a difficult choice, but science may be able to help with your decision.
Does your partner constantly criticize you? Did any cheating take place? Do you have different religious or political values, and you're unsure whether that will be challenging to deal with later on? The research world is brimming with studies on relationships, especially on those that don't work out. Here are 11 telltale signs that you might want to consider when you're thinking about ditching your significant other.
If your partner is constantly criticizing you, you may want to call it quits.
This means more than occasionally griping about some unwashed dishes; this one is about "constant criticism of the person, instead of the action that you'd like to have changed," said Stephanie Coontz, a historian at The Evergreen State College in Washington and the author of "Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage" (Penguin Books, 2006).
These damaging criticisms take an action and attribute it to a person's entire personality. For instance, if your partner doesn't pick up his socks off the bedroom floor, it would be damaging to attribute this perceived carelessness to his entire personality and feelings toward you.
Criticism is one of the so-called "Four Horsemen of the apocalypse," a term coined by John Gottman, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington and co-founder of The Gottman Institute, who researches conflict in married couples.
If your partner engages in any of the Four Horsemen behaviors and doesn't change, despite sessions with a counselor or discussions with you, then it may be time to head to splitsville.
If your partner is rolling his or her eyes (and not in a cute way) at things you say and treating you with disrespect, then they're treating you with contempt.
"That could be anything ranging from being dismissive of the other partner's feelings to name-calling," said Erica Slotter, an associate professor of psychology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
For instance, calling a partner "stupid" isn't healthy for any relationship. If this behavior doesn't change, it may be time to wave goodbye for good.
If you bring up a concern with your partner, but your partner becomes defensive, things can quickly go south. Sometimes, your so-called sweetie may resort to "cross complaining," or "whataboutism" — which is when the other person doesn't respond to your concerns but instead introduces a new complaint as a retort.
For example, you might say, "Hey, it bothered me when you dumped your dirty laundry on the bed." A defensive partner might deflect the criticism by responding, "Well, it really bothers me when you don't do the dishes."
The last of the Four Horsemen is stonewalling. The term basically means that the person withdraws from the interaction, in effect stonewalling instead of participating in the conversation.
"It could be changing the topic, it could be leaving the room," Slotter told Live Science. "It could just be refusing to make eye contact or engaging in the discussion."
If your partner stonewalls when you bring up issues that are important to you or your relationship, that's a red flag that tells you that perhaps it's best to end things.
If your partner is physically abusing you, that's definitely a reason to leave the relationship.
The official term is "intimate partner violence," which can happen any time there is an act of physical aggression or violence against a romantic partner that is designed to cause harm and is unwanted by the partner, Slotter said.
There are multiple types of intimate partner violence, according to Michael Johnson, an emeritus professor of sociology, women's studies and African and African American studies at Penn State. One of those types is intimate terrorism, or violence designed to control and manipulate a partner.
"It tends to be very severe,"Slotter said. "It tends to be escalating in nature, so violent episodes become more violent over time." Oftentimes, the perpetrator has a psychological disorder, such as a personality disorder or substance-abuse disorder.
Another type of physical abuse is situational couple violence, in which partners resort to minor (but still harmful) violence when a conflict gets out of hand. "They're not using physical violence to try to control the behavior of the other," Slotter said. "It's more of a [form of] severe conflict mismanagement."
Like physical abuse, emotional abuse can take a toll. Psychological abuse can involve insults, belittling, constant humiliation, intimidation (such as destroying things), threats of harm and threats of taking away children, according to the World Health Organization.
Moreover, psychological aggression is a predictor that a person will later use physical aggression when lashing out against their partner, a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found. So, take care of yourself, and dump your significant other if you're being emotionally abused.
Do you and your partner follow different religions? Or is one of you a spendthrift and the other a cheapskate? Or do you hold diametrically opposed political beliefs?
All of these potentially explosive issues can affect whether we see ourselves as similar or dissimilar to our partners, Slotter said.
When you first meet a potential love interest, "the more similar they are to us, the more we tend to like them," Slotter said. This holds true for everything from hobbies to demographics to, yes, religious and political beliefs. But whether you're a good match is more complex than whether you both like to play "Pokémon Go" or watch horror movies.
It all comes down to the story we tell ourselves about our partners.
"It's about perception of similarity," Slotter said. "If I think that my partner and I are very similar, that's good. If I perceive my partner as like me, that's a big satisfaction for me in the relationship." So, even if your friends think you and your partner are really different, it doesn't matter. It's all about how you perceive your partner, Slotter said.
Usually, couples become more alike over time, but our perceptions of our partners can also change in the long run. And if you feel that your partner is more dissimilar than similar to you, then it could be time for a deep conversation, or maybe even a Dear John (or Jane) letter.
What if one person wants to settle down, and the other wants to keep their options open? Again, this harkens back to how similar or dissimilar you are to your partner. If one person wants to take coupledom to the next level and the other resists, they have dissimilar long-term goals, and that can be problematic, Slotter said.
It also shows unequal commitment, she said. The person who is less invested in the relationship usually has the most power in the relationship. In other words, the less invested person can usually get away with more than the committed person.
Generally speaking, that's not good for relationships, and "it does tend to be associated with relationship termination," Slotter said. That's because the less committed partner might get frustrated that the other person is trying to increase their commitment. Or, because the committed partner is fed up with the less invested partner "kind of hemming and hawing and sitting on the fence," Slotter said. "That may not fit their needs long term, and so they may exit the relationship."
Do cheaters always cheat again? It depends, research shows.
Granted, if your partner cheats, first you have to decide if you want to stay together. If you do want to give it another go, know this: If someone cheats, there is a higher likelihood that he or she will cheat again, Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington and co-author of "The Normal Bar: The Surprising Secrets of Happy Couples" (Harmony, 2013), previously told Live Science. However, most cheaters have one or two affairs, Schwartz said. It's only a small minority who are serial cheaters and cheat their entire lives, she said.
No couple is an island. After getting married, newlyweds often have to deal with external stressors, such as financial strains, complicated in-laws and parenting demands, if they decide to have children. If couples are unable to cope with these external stressors, that puts them at risk for divorce, according to researchby Lisa Neff, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.
"When those stressors exceed coping abilities, that can actually erode marital happiness over time," said Slotter, who was not involved in the research.
If your relationship is no longer personally fulfilling, it may be time to move on.
In essence, if your relationship is not helping you grow as a person, research shows you'll likely feel less engaged in that relationship and more likely to cheat.
Conversely, if your partner is instrumental in helping you achieve your goals, you'll be happier in the relationship.
"On top of providing companionship and love and sexual contact, and all of these things that we expect from our relationships, now we also expect our relationships to help us achieve our highest selves, our self-actualization through goal pursuit," Slotter said. If that doesn't happen, it's worth asking if this is the relationship for you.
But not everyone who is unhappy in a relationship is facing cheating or violence. Maybe you once had a spark but now feel stuck in a rut or overwhelmed by the details of life. Is it just a rough patch that will pass or is it time to pull the plug on the relationship?
The answer really depends. A lot can change over the course of a marriage, and a 2002 study published by the Institute for American Values, an admittedly pro-marriage think tank, found that three out of four unhappily married couples were happy together five years later. A 2018 study of more than 1,600 couples in the journal Social Networks and the Life Course found that happiness and time spent together followed a U shape; dipping down gradually over the first 20 years of marriage and then climbing slightly or staying steady into the golden years. But, for those who are deeply unhappy, it may be time to call it quits: A 2005 study in the journal Social Forces found that people who are in low-quality marriages are unhappier and fare worse, healthwise, than those who ultimately get divorced.
If you do decide to break up, here are seven scientific facts about splitsville that can help you with the emotional aftermath.