5 Signs a Friend’s Relationship May Be on the Rocks

What to look for and why to trust your gut.

Posted Apr 04, 2014

People are insatiably curious about their friends' relationships: Will Maggie and Luke stay together? How will Riley and Lisa handle long-distance? Will Aubrey ever meet someone? Our fascination with the relationships that surround us may reflect genuine concern for the happiness and well-being of our friends (or just a penchant for gossip), but how accurate are our perceptions? As outsiders, are we any good at predicting the future of others' relationships? Healthy relationships are linked to both psychological and physical well-being (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), and if we are interested in supporting our friends, having a clear compass directing our impressions is critical.

Luckily, scholars have identified certain patterns that can differentiate between happy and less-happy couples, some of which a savvy observer can notice. Sharpen your detective skills by reviewing this sampling of lesser-known indicators that can help you discern whether a friend's, child’s, or co-worker’s relationship might be headed for trouble:

1. Your friend has no illusions about his/her partner. Happy couples tend to view each other through rose-colored glasses, perceiving each other as more “perfect” than they really are (Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 1996). Instead of noticing their partner’s weaknesses, happy couples notice and accentuate their partner’s strengths. Such habits of maintaining positive illusions of a partner are highly predictive of relationship stability (Le, Dove, Agnew, Korn, & Mutso, 2010), suggesting that the absence of illusions could be a sign of trouble.

2. Your friend’s friends are getting divorced. Like a good cookie recipe or a bad cold, divorce can make its way through social groups, passed from friend to friend. Using data from a 32-year longitudinal study, researchers found that a person’s likelihood of divorce increases 75 percent if a "direct connection" (a close friend) is divorced, and 33 percent if a friend’s friend is divorced (McDermott, Fowler, & Christakis, 2013). This is certainly not deterministic, but it does appear that people might be more likely to seriously consider separation if they have friends who have already done so.

3. Your gut tells you the relationship won't last. Outsiders’ impressions are often more accurate predictors of a relationship's fate than a couple’s own perceptions (Agnew, Loving, & Drigotas, 2001). While it may not be perfect, your gut assessment is often on the right track. Further, outsiders' perceptions of how happy friends are in relationships generally correspond with how much they, as outsiders, approve of those friends' relationships (Etcheverry, Le, & Hoffman, 2013). You might think these impressions are benign, but far form it: Outsiders’ approval often leads to actual behaviors that affect the stability of a relationship (Sprecher, 2011). In other words, how we think about our friends' relationships can actually play a role in influencing that relationship's success.

4. Your friend makes a lot more (or less) money than his/her spouse. Before they were married or committed to each other, how financially well-matched were your friend and his or her spouse? A recent study in Sweden suggests that inequality in earning capacity before marriage predicts shaky relationship stability (Astrom, Nakosteen, Westerlund, & Zimmerman, 2011): The greater the premarital difference between partners’ earnings, the more susceptible the relationship may be to divorce. (This pattern actually reflects a stronger predictor of relationship satisfaction—incomesimilarity. Couples who are similar tend to be more satisfied in their marriages and their marriages are characterized by less negative affect (Gaunt, 2006).)

5. You've witnessed defensiveness. On occasion, friends will witness arguments or conflicts between their friends and their friends’ romantic partners. Conflict, in and of itself, is not bad for relationships—indeed, it can be healthy. But you should also consider what type of communication you see within your friends' arguments: Do they listen to each other and take ownership of their roles in a problem? Or are they defensive? Defensive denial, a type of defensiveness, is toxic to relationship well-being (Lannin, Bittner, & Lorenz, 2013). Defensive denial might involve refusing to acknowledge one’s own responsibility in a problem, or making excuses for one’s self. Recent evidence suggests that over time, defensive denial can predict habits of conflict escalation, which in turn, fuel relationship instability (Lannin et al., 2013).

While there’s no one recipe for relationship disengagement (Baxter, 1984), a collection of these signs might suggest your friend’s relationship has a lot stacked against it. By paying attention and listening for these and other signs, friends can make a difference in the lives of their friends, offering support when a relationship is struggling. 

Remember: As outsiders, we have access to only a limited amount of information. We can never truly know what a relationship dynamic is like between two people, when we ourselves are not either of those people. The best we can do is pay attention and be there to help our friends sustain healthy, rewarding, and satisfying relationships.

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Agnew, C. R., Loving, T. J., & Drigotas, S. M. (2001). Substituting the forest for the trees: Social networks and the prediction of romantic relationship state and fate. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1042-1057.

Åström, J., Nakosteen, R. A., Westerlund, O., & Zimmer, M. A. (2011). See the future by looking at the past: Predicting divorce with premarital earnings.  Applied Economics Letters, 18, 997-1000.

Etcheverry, P. E., Le, B. & Hoffman, N. G. (2013), Predictors of friend approval for romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 20, 69–83.

Gaunt, R. (2006). Couple similarity and marital satisfaction: Are similar spouses happier? Journal of Personality, 74, 1401–1420.

Lannin, D. G., Bittner, K. E., & Lorenz, F. O. (2013). Longitudinal effect of defensive denial on relationship instability. Journal of Family Psychology, 27(6), 968-977.

Le, B., Dove, N. L., Agnew, C. R., Korn, M. S., & Mutso, A. A. (2010). Predicting nonmarital romantic relationship dissolution: A meta‐analytic synthesis. Personal Relationships, 17(3), 377-390.

McDermott, R., Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2013). Breaking up is hard to do, unless everyone else is doing it too: Social network effects on divorce in a longitudinal sample. Social Forces, 92, 491-519.

Sprecher, S. (2011). The influence of social networks on romantic relationships: Through the lens of the social network. Personal Relationships, 18, 630-644.