Just think of how much emotional pain could be avoided if humans knew just when to exit a romantic relationship? Knowing whether to break up or stay together is a wrenching question that often lacks an easy answer.
Until now, that is. Researchers at the University of Rochester say they have devised a test to tell if a relationship is going to fall apart. The test involves uncovering what people really -- meaning really -- think of or feel about their partners. Previous studies show people are often unable or reluctant to express their true feelings about their partners. "[T]hat assumes that they know themselves how happy they are, and that's not always the case," a coauthor of the study, Ronald D. Rogge, explained in a news release.
Rogge and his colleagues devised a test in which volunteers supplied their partner's first name and two other words that related to the person -- like a pet name or distinct characteristic. The volunteers then watched a monitor as words were presented. The words conveyed positive ideas, such as "vacation" and "peace" along with the partner-related words they supplied or bad ideas, such as "tragedy" and "criticize," and the partner-related words. The respondents were asked to press a bar when they saw various words. One test featured the bad and partner-related words, and the other the good words and partner-related words. The idea was to get people's automatic reactions to the words. If people have generally good associations with their partners, they would perform the "good words" task easier than the "bad words."
That is, in fact, what happened. The volunteers who found it easier to associate their partner with bad things, and had greater difficulty associating their partner with good things, were more likely to separate over the next year.
Such a measure could be useful to therapists in trying to uncover feelings clients are unwilling to divulge and to differentiate the nature of the problem in a relationship, the authors wrote.
"[I]n deteriorating relationships, the negative associations people begin to form about their partner may be too subtle or threatening for them to recognize in themselves or too socially undesirable for them to report to others," they wrote.
The study was released Wednesday in the journal Psychological Science.