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How Many Problems Does It Take to Kill a Relationship?

The rule may be: No more than four.

Key points

  • Heading into relationships, people often have a set of "dealbreakers" or qualities that would disqualify a relationship.
  • Real life relationship decision making is complicated, and people end up not adhering to their dealbreakers as closely as they might think.
  • Rather than being "one and done" with dealbreakers, study participants seemed to follow a rule of "no more than four."
Niranjan _ Photographs/Unsplash
All relationship have problems, but how much is too much?
Source: Niranjan _ Photographs/Unsplash

Early in a relationship, everyone is on their best behavior. Both partners emphasize their best traits, while carefully concealing their flaws.

It can’t last forever. Eventually, imperfections emerge. Problems arise. Doubt creeps in. Should we stay, or go?

That’s what makes dating so difficult. Though we form impressions of a partner’s physical features immediately, their personality, qualities, quirks, and characteristics get revealed much more gradually. As we learn more, we have decisions to make.

No one is perfect, so flaws are inevitable. But, how much is too much?

Studying Decision Points in a Relationship

To study this, researchers used what they called a “Choose Your Own Adventure” design. Across two studies, 1,585 participants immersed themselves in a story where they were in a relationship that became increasingly serious. As the relationship progressed, participants encountered 17 decision points.

At each, participants learned some new information about their partner. Next, they chose their relationship adventure by deciding whether to stay or go. These weren’t just any decision points though. Rather, each potentially included a “dealbreaker,” which are qualities people are unwilling to tolerate in their relationship partners. Dealbreakers include qualities like being dirty, clingy, lazy, needy, and having a bad sense of humor. In other words, qualities no one wants in a partner.

For example, the first decision point focused on attractiveness with the dealbreaker description explaining the person you're dating is, “… around your height, less attractive than you were expecting, and a touch disheveled, but seems friendly.” Not attractive AND disheveled. Definite dealbreakers. The non-dealbreaker described the potential partner as, “… attractive, dressed nicely, and seems friendly.” A much better partner.

What They Found

Remember, that dealbreakers theoretically represent strict criteria that a potential partner must avoid. Exhibiting a dealbreaker should automatically make that person undatable. But participants didn’t treat alleged dealbreakers as absolute triggers for ending the relationship. An unattractive disheveled appearance should, in theory, make a person want to discontinue the relationship. But it didn’t. Participants generally gave the relationship a chance, and chose to learn more about the potential partner. Instead of treating problems as make or break, participants were more flexible and tended to bend their alleged dealbreakers.

Though the first dealbreaker didn’t automatically kill the relationship, the negative information had a cumulative effect. As participants received more negative information, they grew increasingly likely to discontinue the relationship. Generally, the tipping point was between three and four pieces of bad information. Rather than it taking a single dealbreaker to end a relationship, it seems the real rule daters generally follow is “no more than four.”

Participants who came into the study with a longer list of dealbreakers were quicker to end the relationship. Participants also ended the relationship when they learned about a particular dealbreaker that was important to them (e.g., they cared a lot about political affiliation and learned the partner held opposing views).

“People typically think of dealbreakers as hard-and-fast bits of information that would make someone automatically end a relationship. But our findings suggest that many relationship issues considered dealbreakers may not actually make people exit relationships right away,” said Nicolyn Charlot, a Western social psychology Ph.D. candidate.

The Take-Home Message

We may have a plan for how we want to approach new relationships, but we have a difficult time sticking to it. Despite learning about dealbreaker information that should rule out a potential relationship partner, people continued the relationship. In other words, we don’t run at the first sign of trouble. That may be a good thing because it gives us a chance to learn more and revise our impression. Then again, we may be opening ourselves up to forming a stronger emotional connection that makes it more difficult to discontinue an undesirable relationship. We become more likely to settle.

The good news was that most people eventually reached a breaking point where the number of dealbreakers accumulated to a point where they were too much to handle. The important thing is that we recognize red flags and make informed decisions about our relationship’s future.

Facebook image: Mego studio/Shutterstock


Joel, S., & Charlot, N. (2022). Dealbreakers, or dealbenders? Capturing the cumulative effects of partner information on mate choice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 101.

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