- Partners who perceive lower levels of reward in their relationship are more likely to be headed for a breakup.
- Relationship reward contains different features of intimacy such as connection, love, and self-disclosure.
- Relational disengagement may manifest through building boundaries or withdrawing affection.
Research corroborates the reality that in romance, the end is often predictable. The evidence suggests that the strongest sign that a romance is over is arguably not what a partner says or does, but how he makes the other feel.
In other words, if you sense your partner has moved on emotionally, he probably has. Although he might still perform the relational bare minimum, such as dutifully calling every day, a partner’s “quiet quitting” may be obvious in other ways, such as through the choice to increasingly make plans alone or with others. While it's tempting to wonder if you are “just too sensitive,” or assume you must have done something to prompt your partner to pull away, actions speak louder than words—and a partner’s behavior speaks volumes.
Lack of Intimacy Predicts Breakup
Yoobin Park et al. (2021) investigated the link between a lack of intimacy and the likelihood of relationship dissolution. [i] They found that partners who perceived lower levels of reward in their relationship were more likely headed for a breakup. They discovered this effect was significant even after controlling for relationship satisfaction and attachment insecurity.
Operationalizing reward in a way that captured different features of intimacy such as connection, love, and self-disclosure, the findings of Park et al. validate the importance of intimacy within a romantic relationship, corroborating previous findings that intimate connection is one of the fundamental reasons people stay in a relationship. They also note that because there may be a difference in the extent to which people value intimacy or consider it a “reward,” there may also be a difference in the reward’s predictive power for a breakup. Park et al. report that their exploratory analyses yielded support for this possibility by demonstrating that reward did not predict breakup as strongly for people who place less value on intimacy.
Recognizing When the End is Near
Noticing the presence or absence of the features of intimacy noted by Park et al., such as connection, love, and self-disclosure, can make it easier to notice when your partner is disengaging. Here are a few signs.
- Building boundaries. Some partners begin to withdraw by building walls instead of bridges. This may occur physically, such as when a partner seeks to spend more time in a different room, or emotionally, through decreased information sharing. However it is manifest, building boundaries is a roadblock to relational development, signaling the beginning of a future apart.
- Withdrawing affection. If your partner has lost interest in intimacy and romance, you most likely want to know why. Barring significant life changes such as a cancer diagnosis, or the loss of a job or loved one, which can be associated with withdrawal and depression, withdrawing affection is often a sign that the relationship is faltering.
- Seeking socialization. A partner who is gravitating towards meeting new people or attending events solo may be demonstrating a preference for singlehood. You can respectfully inquire into the reasons or rationale for the change in preference, but consider whether there will ever be an acceptable answer to the desire to spend time socializing without you.
Beginning a New Chapter
If your relationship does come to an end, remember that a failed relationship is not the end of the world; indeed, it can be the beginning of a fresh chapter in your life. There is nothing about romantic rejection that defines you; breakups happen to most people at some point, and many breakups have more to do with the partner who prompts the dissolution. If a breakup was indeed provoked by your behavior, you can learn from it and move on, stronger and wiser.
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[i] Park, Yoobin, Emily A. Impett, Stephanie S. Spielmann, Samantha Joel, and Geoff MacDonald. 2021. “Lack of Intimacy Prospectively Predicts Breakup.” Social Psychological and Personality Science 12 (4): 442–51. doi:10.1177/1948550620929499.