Sometimes it’s easy to tell when a romantic relationship is about to take a dive. It doesn’t bode well if you would rather sort out socks than go out for a date or if neither of you can think of much to say to each other. Another bad sign is when–consciously or not–you associate your partner with words like “death” or “attacking.”

In a recent study using a word association task, psychologists at the University of Rochester asked 222 men and women–all of them married, engaged or in committed relationships–to do some computerized word-sorting. As quickly as they could, participants paired their romantic partners’ names and distinctive characteristics with either positive words such as “peace” and “caring” or negative words such as “nagging” and “criticizing.”

The task is designed to tap into people’s implicit feelings–attitudes they may be unable or unwilling to explicitly acknowledge. Results showed that the more often individuals “flubbed” their responses to pairings of partner-related words with positive words, the more likely they were to have broken up a year later–even when variables such as relationship satisfaction and conflict were taken into account. Across two experiments using slightly different partner pairings and above average on negative partner pairings had a 70 to 75 per cent likelihood of breaking up within a year, compared to only 11 to 14 per cent of other participants.

These results suggest that implicit negative attitudes toward a partner may reflect implicit misgivings and gripes that are either too subtle to consciously recognize or too distressing to admit–but you can’t ignore your unconscious forever.

This research also supports the extensive research of Dr. John Gottman, who identified the use of language–and specifically criticism of one partner of the other–as the prime reason for the breakup of relationships.

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