I previously wrote about the things that do and do not predict breakups. Now that we have a good handle on what predicts breakup, let’s tackle the question “who predicts breakup?”
The answer seems fairly obvious, right? If I want to know if your relationship will stand the test of time, I should ask you and/or your partner. Who knows more about a relationship than the people actually in that relationship? You’re there (and hopefully awake) for all of the interactions you have with your partner. In contrast, your friends and family (i.e., your social network), for example, probably only see a small slice of the time you spend with your partner. Additionally, you might try to hide negative aspects of your relationship from friends and family, so they might not have accurate information about your relationship.
Has there ever been a time when you and your partner were in the middle of a disagreement but then “put on a happy face” in front of others so they wouldn’t know about your relationship troubles? If so, you’ve engaged in “impression management”; that’s the nice way of saying you deceived them.1 In short, according to this logic, friends and family have relatively little information about a relationship compared to the people in the relationship, and the information they do have might be inaccurate. So they shouldn’t be very good at predicting the fate of that relationship, right?
But, people do talk about their relationships with others. Even though your friends and family might not see everything that goes on in your relationships, they probably know about some of the important stuff. Plus, we know that people are overly optimistic about their relationships and have positive illusions about how things are going. Love is blind but your friends aren’t (at least metaphorically). You are motivated to protect your self-esteem by thinking that your relationship is better than it might actually be; your friends are under no such psychological pressure and may not deceive themselves in the same way.2
How do you disentangle these competing explanations in a way that the data support? Research by Chris Agnew, SofR’s own Tim Loving, and Steve Drigotas3 gathered a sample of heterosexual dating couples and had them identify “his friends,” “her friends,” and “our friends” (i.e., friends of both partners) and then asked them all to rate the commitment and closeness of the couple. When comparing all of the responses, her friends’ ratings were consistently the best predictors of breakup — better than the couple themselves, joint friends, and his friends. In fact, after you accounted for what her friends thought, you really didn’t need to ask anybody else what they thought about the relationship – you already knew everything you needed to predict the fate of the dating relationships! So if you want to know if a particular relationship will make it, ask her friends.
Why is it that her friends seem to have the most insight into a relationship? Maybe women talk to their friends more about relationships, so her friends have more information about the relationship. Or maybe her friends are more likely to be female (as they were in this study); if women are more “in tune” with relationships (i.e., the stereotype that women are more concerned about relationships than men), then her female friends are likely to be accurate in their assessment of the relationship. We don’t have the phrase “women’s intuition’ for nothing.
The bottom line? Friends, especially female friends, have a pretty good sense of what is going on in your relationship.
See the Daily Show‘s coverage of this research:
1Loving, T. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2001). Socially desirable responding in close relationships: A dual- component approach and measure. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18, 551-573.
2Loving, T. J. (2006). Predicting dating relationship fate with insiders’ and outsiders’ perspectives: Who and what is asked matters. Personal Relationships, 13, 349-362.
3Agnew, 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.
Dr. Benjamin Le – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.