This article was originally published on The Gottman Relationship Blog
The idea that the love in your relationship has expired is a difficult thought for one to stomach. I often think of myself as Cupid’s sidekick. I root for couples that I work with to triumph, but I have seen love turn into hate and fondness into bitterness.
In these instances, the best thing partners can do is to walk away. In a recent interview, Dr. 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.
Lucky for us, Dr. Gottman’s breakthrough research with thousands of couples has discovered five telltale signs that can predict – with over 94% accuracy – whether a couple will break up within the next four years.
The Story of Us
As in fairy tales, love thrives in a story. The easiest way to tell if a relationship has passed its expiration date is to listen to the Story of Us couples share.
When Dr. Gottman studied the differences between happy and unhappy couples, he uncovered what he calls the “Story of Us Switch.” It’s the light switch of lasting love.
When it is turned on, the light of love fills the relationship with positive stories, keeping the monsters of irritability and emotional distance in the closet. When the light is turned off, the monsters come out. This is when partners began to assume the worst about each other.
Dr. Gottman calls this a switch because he rarely saw a range of memories. Couples seemed to either have -click- joyful memories or -click- bitter ones.
Whether our 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 the Story of Us. If your relationship has all five telltale signs below, it may be time to bail.
1. 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 occasion.
2. Me-ness Dominates We-ness
Happy couples tell their stories with a sense of we-ness. You get the feeling that they are “in this together.” Often their words show similar beliefs, values, and goals.
When the we-ness is lost, partners often describe their history in a way that emphasizes how it affected them individually, 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 Dr. John Gottman calls the roach motel.
3. Impersonal Details of Partners
When couples have a vivid and distinct memories of each other, it’s a sign that they understand and respect what makes the other work. 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 the love map to each other’s heart.
4. 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. It’s clear that the past troubles and conflicts did not strengthen their bond. It pushed them apart. Life and love just kind of happened to them.
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.
5. 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 do say something, it’s short.
Satisfied partners believe their relationship has met their expectations. A happy couple describes knowing that their partner was right for them.
When Dr. Gottman 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.