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The 3 Behaviors Most Likely to Derail a Relationship

3. Being controlling.

Key points

  • Romantic relationships are important for health and happiness. Sustaining an intimate relationship, however, can be difficult.
  • A new study identified six categories of behaviors that negatively impact one's willingness to stay in a relationship.
  • The most significant deal-breakers are being uncaring, trying to control one’s partner, and mistreating children.
Source: Takmeomeo/Pixabay

Meryl Streep has been with her partner for over 40 years. Perhaps more surprisingly, the same is true of Keith Richards. In contrast, Jennifer Lopez, Nicolas Cage, and Drew Barrymore have had marriages that lasted only months.

As these examples from Hollywood suggest, it is difficult to tell which couples will stay together. Nevertheless, some behaviors may be good predictors of future breakup and divorce.

So, which behaviors do you think are highest on the list of relationship deal-breakers: Cheating and infidelity? Lack of ambition? Being abusive?

Published in Evolutionary Psychology, a recent study by M. Apostolou suggests six categories of behaviors that may predict relationship termination.

Investigating predictors of breaking up

Study 1

Sample: 233 Greek-speaking students (132 women) at a university in Cyprus; average of 31 years old; 39% in a relationship and 27% single.

Methods: Participants responded to the question, “Please indicate some things your partner is likely to do which would negatively affect your willingness to stay in a relationship with him/her.”

Study 2

Sample: 536 Greek-speaking students (321 women); average age of 32 years old; 40% in a relationship and 37% single; 28% with children.

Methods: Participants read the following: “You can find below some things your current or future partner might do. Indicate to what extent they would negatively affect your willingness to continue your relationship with him/her.”

They then received a list of behaviors (obtained from the previous study) to rate.


A total of 88 acts that negatively impact willingness to stay in a romantic relationship were identified and organized into six factors:

  1. Tries to control me (being pushy, critical, manipulative, jealous, competitive).
  2. Does not care about me (lack of attention and interest, selfish and narcissistic tendencies, taking his/her partner for granted, not respecting the other person’s needs or views).
  3. Exhibits abusive behavior (whining, yelling, cursing, being rough).
  4. Shows romantic/sexual interest in other people (talking to his/her ex, flirting with others, cheating, having affairs).
  5. Has undesirable traits (laziness, stinginess, lack of ambition, emotional immaturity).
  6. Does not treat the children well (rarely takes good care of children or spends enough time with them).

The most important of these were the first, second, and sixth factors.

Analysis of data also found relationship and sex differences: Women and singles gave a more negative rating to the six factors. The two largest sex differences concerned, “Does not care about me,” and, “Tries to control me.”

Significant age effects were noted as well, with older people rating the factors more negatively than younger individuals.


According to new research, three categories of behavior that have the most negative impact on the willingness to stay in a relationship are:

  1. Not showing care (e.g., spending little time with the partner, showing no sexual interest, failure to listen, being ungrateful, ignoring responsibilities).
  2. Not treating the children well (e.g., being abusive in front of children, mistreating them, failing to behave as a parent should).
  3. Being controlling (e.g., the tendency to disrespect, manipulate, underestimate, dominates, or blame the partner).

Women, more than men, rated these factors negatively, possibly because women are more selective in choosing partners, especially long-term mates.

Indeed, the biggest sex difference was found for the factor, “does not care about me,” which may signal a lack of long-term commitment.

Singles, compared to individuals in a relationship, also rated these factors more negatively. Why? Possibly because people who are seriously dating or married have, due to their investment in the relationship, a greater tendency to overlook unpleasant behaviors. Singles, by contrast, have zero investment, so they can “afford” to be pickier.

Then again, perhaps the causal direction is the opposite, meaning that low tolerance for negative behavior does not result from singlehood but is one of its causes.

These are only speculations, of course, and we must await future research to better understand the association between deal-breakers, relationship status, and sex/gender.

Facebook image: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

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