Breakups happen. And they don't often come out of nowhere. Before the actual breakup, at least one person in the relationship starts to consider that things aren't working for them. They may begin to take steps or make plans to break up. There is a difference, though, between perceiving that a partner intends to break up and perceiving that a partner is committed to the relationship. For example, it is possible that one's partner is still committed to the relationship but is actively considering ending it because they're about to move to another country.

The decision to end a relationship, however, isn't the product of just one person's feelings. There's another person involved, too! In addition to weighing one's own feelings about a relationship, people make breakup decisions by also considering what their partners think. But are people good at knowing what their partners think? Our research team wondered whether people ever consider that their partners might want to break up with them, and if so, how accurate are their perceptions?

Suspecting a Breakup is Looming

First, to see if people ever suspect that their partners are thinking about breaking up, we surveyed hundreds of people currently in committed romantic relationships. We asked them some straightforward questions like how much they believed their partners had been thinking about ending their romantic relationships and have been close to saying that they wanted to end their relationships. We also asked how committed they thought their partners were to the relationship.

Overall, we found that people actually did think their partners were considering ending their relationships relatively often. Specifically, approximately 20% of our participants said they at least "occasionally" suspected their partner of wanting to break up. And importantly, even though these suspicions overlapped with how committed they thought their partners were, it wasn't a total overlap. Beliefs about breakup desires and beliefs about commitment were two distinct sorts of perceptions.

So, Are People's Suspicions True?

As for whether people's perceptions of breakup intentions are accurate, the picture is more complicated. On the one hand, people should be reasonably accurate because they spend way more time with their partner than with other people. On the other hand, given that people are motivated to keep relationships intact, they might be biased and ignore signs that their partner plans to break up. Hence, people could be accurate but biased at the same time!

To test whether this is the case, we found 235 couples from Singapore and asked them to reflect on their relationships. Each member of each couple completed his or her own survey. They were under strict instructions not to consult with their partners! The surveys asked them how much they wanted to break up with their partner as well as whether they thought their partner wanted to break up with them. They also answered questions related to their attachment style. We then compared people's perceptions of their partner's breakup consideration to their partner's actual breakup consideration.

We found that indeed, people tended to underperceive their partner's intentions. Overall, they were guessing that their partners had weaker intentions to break up than their partners had actually reported.

However, from another perspective, their perceptions were still relatively accurate. When we looked at individuals in the context of all of our participants, they could track their partners' feelings relative to the rest of the group. When someone's partner held stronger breakup intentions than most people, they were picking up on it. When their partner had weaker intentions than most people, they were also picking up on it.

Some People Are More in Tune with their Partners' Intentions

In addition to testing overall rates of accuracy, we had also hypothesized that people with a high need for reassurance and fear of rejection (i.e., "anxiously attached" people) were likely candidates for having beliefs about their partners' breakup intentions that were especially accurate. These are people who are hypervigilant about monitoring threats to a relationship.

We were right. It was true that compared to securely attached people, anxiously attached people were better at tracking whether their partners were considering breaking up more than the average person. But they were also just more likely to suspect their partners were thinking about breaking up in general, so they more often overestimated their partners' breakup intentions.  

Overall, we found consistent and compelling support for the notion that people know when their partners want to break up with them. After all, people do not want to get hurt by staying together with someone who is thinking of breaking up with them. But how would we respond to this newfound awareness? We don't have all the answers yet, but we suspect that once people start thinking their partners are considering a breakup, they try to prepare themselves emotionally for the impending split. But even though they're reasonably accurate, these perceptions aren't perfect. Perhaps it's better to prepare for a breakup that never comes than to be blindsided by an unexpected one.

For Further Reading

Tan, K., Machia, L. V., & Agnew, C. R. (2023). When one's partner wants out: Awareness, attachment anxiety and accuracy. European Journal of Social Psychology, 00, 1-12. 

Joel, S., Impett, E. A., Spielmann, S. S., & MacDonald,G. (2018). How interdependent are stay/leave decisions? On staying in the relationship for the sake of the romantic partner. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115, 805–824.

VanderDrift, L. E., Agnew, C. R., &Wilson, J. E. (2009). Non-marital romantic relationship commitment and leave behavior: The mediating role of dissolution consideration. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1220–1232.

Kenneth Tan is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the School of Social Sciences at Singapore Management University. His research interests revolve around close relationships, in particular commitment, partner perceptions, and relationship dissolution as well as their effects on individual and relational well-being.

Laura V. Machia is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Syracuse University. Her research interests center on inter- and intra-personal dynamics of close relationships. Specifically, she examines predictors of relationship outcomes, most notably dissolution behaviors and health outcomes, as well as the processes associated with these outcomes.

Christopher R. Agnew is Professor of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University. A social psychologist, his research focuses on close, interpersonal relationships and the use of relational models to understand social and health processes.