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Summer Lovin' or Summer Leavin'? Two Ways to Predict Break-up

Summer is here…the beach, the pool, the mountains, picnics, fireworks, sitting around reading trashy novels, or perhaps just a little rest and relaxation. You might also consider adding a little summer romance to that list. Now, if you're already in a relationship, this might pose some problems, but hear me out. Whether you and your partner are graduating and heading off to different colleges, or just have different summer vacation plans, the summer may be a good time to take a break. Blasphemy! Well, maybe you would never consider it…but would your partner?


As you can see from this infographic from InformationIsBeautiful.net, we’re about to enter one of the many danger zones for relationships (though not nearly as threatening to relationships as Valentine’s Day or Christmas—so kudos if you’ve made it through those). Anytime you get a chance to look at this type of data, be sure to interpret it with a critical eye. Consider the methods used to gather the information, including who the data represents. For example, this chart probably doesn’t tell you much about the impending break-ups at the local nursing home, bingo hall, or from anyone who doesn’t own a computer. Why? The creators of this graphic collected the data from Facebook status updates. As a result, the information will skew toward more frequent users and status updaters on Facebook (i.e., college students). Take a closer look at the chart. There certainly seems to be a pattern forming around the college calendar in terms of when semesters begin and end, as well as a major period of Spring Break break-ups. If someone wasn’t in college, why would early March result in so many break-ups? As a result, this graphic is probably most applicable to college students, but less so for others.

If you are appropriately skeptical of predicting your break-up from a Facebook inspired graph, there are some ways to determine if you’re going to get dumped or do the dumping. First, you could ask your friends. Or, you could go right to the source and ask your partner… but would they tell the truth? “Of course we’re happy and I’ll never leave you.” Riiigght. Or, you could 'ask' yourself, but maybe you have doubts that you're not realizing or are unwilling to accept. To get around relying on these potentially less than totally genuine responses, and to see if people are fully aware of their feelings about their relationships, researchers from the University of Rochester used an ingenious word game to get at people's true feelings about their relationships.1 For this task, participants paired up words related to their partner (e.g., their partner's name) with positive or negative words (e.g., peace vs. tragedy, respectively). When researchers contacted the participants a year later, those who were better at pairing negative words with their partners, and worse at pairing their partners with positive words were more likely to break-up. These word associations were predictive of break-up above and beyond self-reported satisfaction and neuroticism. In other words, the benefit of using the word game procedure is that it exposes relationship attitudes that the participant may have been unwilling, or perhaps even unable, to reveal. This suggests that a relationship may be headed toward dissolution before either partner is directly aware of the impending dissolution.

It is important to acknowledge that there is no 100% failsafe way to predict whether a relationship is going to last forever or just for now. Obviously, a Facebook graph will tell you what has happened with others in the past, but may not accurately predict what will happen in your relationship. There are also lots of other factors that help predict an impending break-up aside from word games. But this line of work highlights one of the cool things that relationships researchers have up their sleeves.

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1Lee, S., Rogge, R. D., & Reis, H. T. (2010). Assessing the seeds of relationship decay: Using implicit evaluations to detect the early stages of disillusionment. Psychological Science, 21(6), 857-864. doi:10.1177/0956797610371342 

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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