Most couples break up over these 8 simple behaviors, according to psychology

Have you ever wondered what causes people to break up?

You may assume that most break-ups occur due to unforgivable actions like infidelity.

However, according to research from the Gottman Institute and many other psychologists, relationship breakdowns are typically due to several “root” behaviors. 

By understanding these destructive behaviors, we know the warning signs to look for. And by nipping them in the bud early on, we can get our relationship back on track before it reaches the point of no return.

So, let’s dive into the eight simple behaviors that research has linked to relationship break-ups.

1) Lack of communication

Every psychologist and relationship counselor agrees that open communication is the key to a healthy relationship.

So naturally, poor communication is at the heart of many relationship issues and breakdowns.


Researchers from this 2022 study were able to accurately predict the relationship satisfaction of couples over time based on their communication style.

Other research backs this up…

For example, this 2012 research survey on divorce found that out of 886 couples, 53% cited lack of communication as the reason for their relationship break up.

But here’s the thing… 

Poor communication is often at the root of various relationship problems that lead to a break-up. 

By not communicating openly and honestly with your partner, you may resort to other toxic behaviors that are detrimental to your relationship, such as the following…

2) Excessive criticism 

According to the Gottman Institute, four key behaviors, known as the Four Horsemen, can predict the end of a relationship.

One of these is excessive and ongoing verbal attacks.

Now, this is very different from giving your partner constructive feedback, such as telling them when they have behaved in an undesirable way.

Criticism goes beyond voicing a complaint, although the people engaging in this behavior often claim their “complaints” are valid.

Here’s the difference…

Complaints are about certain behaviors our partners have done.

Criticizing is attacking our partner’s character.

As you would expect, criticism makes the other person feel attacked, which can cause them to strike back, leading to back-and-forth verbal attacks.

If you do not identify and stop criticism in its tracks, it will eventually lead to the following behavior, moving closer to the point of no return…

3) Not showing each other respect

The second of the Four Horsemen is ‘contempt,’ which means disrespecting each other. 

This is the most interesting of the Four Horsemen as it is something many of us may do without realizing it.

Lack of respect is not always direct. It could manifest as more subtle behaviors, such as:

  • Being overly sarcastic
  • Ridiculing or belittling our partner in public
  • Continually interrupting them when they’re speaking
  • Mimicking our partner by repeating their words in a mocking voice
  • Eye-rolling

When we disrespect our partners, we make them feel despised and worthless.

This becomes extremely dangerous for the relationship as you go from being a team to being enemies. 

When there is contempt in the relationship, you are no longer working together but against each other.

Psychologists believe people resort to this behavior as a way to increase their own feelings of worthiness. By tearing their partner down, they essentially feel better about themselves. 

Like criticism, contempt stems from long-simmering, unresolved relationship issues and poor communication.

4) Stonewalling

Stonewalling is when one person stops responding to their partner, giving them the silent treatment.

It is not about needing time out after a heated argument. Instead, it is how someone behaves when they do not know how to communicate their feelings.

While manipulators use stonewalling as a way to gain power over their victim, in a relationship, it is a little different.

Among partners, silent treatment typically occurs when one person has upset the other, perhaps by criticizing them.

The stonewaller is hurt by their partner’s behaviors and remarks. But instead of confronting their partner about their feelings, they react by ignoring them.

This behavior can manifest as:

  • Walking away whenever the partner starts a conversation
  • Acting busy and unavailable 
  • Engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors, such as excessive phone usage, as a way to avoid their partner

The problem with stonewalling in a relationship is that it quickly becomes a destructive habit.

Growing up, my parents often used this behavior on me. But I later learned that they did not do it intentionally; rather, it had become their unconscious, default communication style. 

5) Defensiveness 

toxic relationship Most couples break up over these 8 simple behaviors, according to psychology

Another behavior that psychology has found often leads to break-ups is defensiveness.

This is usually in response to a complaint from our partner that we don’t want to acknowledge. 

If we feel like our partner is unjustly accusing us of something, we might try to find an excuse for our behavior or shift the blame onto our partner to avoid accountability.


This behavior often starts subtly about trivial things, so we don’t realize we are doing it.

For example…

Our partner could accuse us of breaking our promise to take the bins out. 

As we don’t want to admit we messed up, we might say something like, “You know how busy I am today. If it were the other way around, I would help take a load off by doing it for you.”

Rather than apologizing for forgetting, we shift the blame onto our partners by making them feel guilty about not doing something we did not even ask them to do.

Research on defensiveness states there are many other ways this behavior can manifest, such as:

  • Claiming not to remember the event occurred/ or remembering it differently
  • Minimizing the harm caused by our actions
  • Denying responsibility
  • Disengaging entirely from the situation

6) A close-minded attitude

When communication or lack of empathy is not the root of a relationship problem, it is likely due to this…

One person is making an effort, and the other isn’t.

For example, let’s say we are actively trying to become a better partner.

So, after arguments, we are very reflective, thinking of how we and our partner could have reacted better.

We then share these insights with our partner, hoping it will help break the toxic patterns causing the conflict.

But here is the problem…

Our partner is not open to hearing feedback.

This can create a lot of hostility and resentment. 

As a relationship requires effort from both partners, the relationship will undoubtedly end if the close-minded partner does not become open to feedback.

A close-minded person typically has no desire to change, so this behavior often goes hand-in-hand with the following one…

7) Unwillingness to change

Dr. Gottman’s research highlights the importance of adaptability and growth in maintaining relationship satisfaction. 

As human beings, we are constantly changing and evolving. Thus, we are likely not the person we were at the start of our relationship.

That’s why our partner must actively strive to meet our changing needs and aspirations for the relationship to survive and thrive. And, of course, we must do the same for them.

However, if there is only growth and evolution from one partner, the relationship cannot survive.

If the close-minded partner does not accept and embrace change, the evolving partner will outgrow them.

Research has found that when couples share growth experiences, their relationships strengthen. But when only one person grows, romantic passion decreases.

This is why one of the most common break-up reasons you hear from people is, ‘We just grew apart.’

This is not to say that partners must share the same aspirations and goals. But they do both need to have a desire to change and evolve.

8) Lack of empathy and emotional support

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. 

So, as research shows, in relationships, empathy is the key to fostering connection and emotional support. 

For example, in this 2016 study, researchers found that the less empathetic someone rated their partner, the less supportive they also rated them.

Therefore, when one person lacks empathy, the relationship suffers immensely. 

The person lacking empathy creates emotional distance, which makes the other person feel alone, unloved, and unsupported.

Often, when one person lacks empathy, the couple will slowly drift apart as the emotional distance increases.

Eventually, this leads to a total relationship breakdown, as the other person realizes their partner cannot meet their emotional needs.

Final thoughts

Relationships take work and effort. To ensure our relationship continues to thrive, we must regularly assess how we treat each other.

By identifying and addressing these eight behaviors, we can strengthen and protect our bond rather than watch it crumble and deteriorate.

Picture of Gemma Clarke

Gemma Clarke

I am a certified yoga and mindfulness teacher and an experienced content writer in the spirituality and personal growth space. I’m passionate about sharing my expertise through the power of words to inspire and guide others along the path of personal and spiritual development.

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