What is the Number One Predictor of a Breakup?

I’m asked this question a lot. As a divorce attorney, I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but because it comes up so often, I thought it’s something worth writing about as well.

As someone who has had a “ringside seat” to the demise of several thousand previously happy relationships, I can tell you the #1 predictor of a breakup is the rate at which either or both parties stop trying to impress the other.

When people start dating they typically offer their partner a “best self” version of themselves. Comedian Nikki Glazer called this the equivalent of having “spanx for your personality”. It’s still you but it’s a very flattering and compressed version of you and the real stuff is dying to get out.

You also, at that phase of a relationship (sometimes weeks, sometimes months, often from dating through just after the honeymoon) spend a lot of time and energy trying to make your partner have warm feelings about you: doing small gestures that will make him or her feel good about you and feel loved and attended to.

After some time passes and your partner becomes a “given” in your life (no longer a shiny new toy that you aren’t sure you’ll be allowed to keep and, thus, want to play with as long as possible) your energies become, understandably, directed at the other (and often more stressful and maintenance requiring) aspects of your life (work, family, friends).

I was speaking with a female client once, during a long wait in Family Court before a divorce was finalized. I asked her when she knew her marriage was officially over and she told me, in an uncharacteristically nostalgic and melancholy tone, that it was NOT when she caught him texting with his mistress, and NOT when she found the bank records that showed he was gambling his entire bonus rather than bringing it home. It was months before all that when she noticed, for the first time, that he stopped buying her granola.

“There was this particular brand of granola that I like and when we were first dating and married he would always notice when I was running low on it and get me a new bag of it when he would go to Whole Foods for lunch (he worked in the Time Warner Center above the Whole Foods). I never mentioned it to him – I don’t know that I really noticed all that much that he did it – but it was a nice feeling – that he noticed I was low on my favorite granola, and that he knew it was my favorite, and that he was thinking of me while he was in Whole Foods and brought it home for me and didn’t even think to point it out and try to “get credit” for all of that. It was just something he did because he was thinking of me and knew this silly small unique thing gave me pleasure. One day I noticed I was out of that granola and he hadn’t bought it for me. I was a little surprised but I didn’t think much of it. The next time I ran out I left the bag on the counter as a subtle hint – but he never bought it for me again. I think there was a part of me that knew, at that moment, I was no longer on his radar and things were heading south.”

I asked her if there was anything like that on her end of the relationship and she replied flatly:

“Blow jobs.”

I almost spit out my coffee.

“I know it sounds silly and it might be inappropriate to say – but I used to give him blow jobs a few times per week. It took all of five minutes in the morning and for the rest of the day he was all giddy and happy. I got a kick out of how much he enjoyed it. But after some time married I started sleeping in a bit more and I just didn’t think to take that five minutes to do it. Plus I had this feeling of, I don’t know, resentment – like I don’t OWE him a blow job and I’ve got 50 things to do today – he can wait until I get home tonight and we can have sex so both of us enjoy it. But I guess that was his granola in some ways. I don’t know.”

So there it is. Granola and blow jobs.

But really it’s just about the little things we do to remind the other person that we take pleasure in their pleasure. The little reminders that we are paying attention and trying to find ways to make them smile.

Relationships are all about connection in my view. By the time someone reaches my office the connection is destroyed but most of the time it broke a long time before.

So in my view the #1 predictor of a break up would be the rate at which the partners in a relationship stop demonstrating the small daily gestures that make you feel special and loved and connected in that relationship. Or, to put it another way, the frequency with which each partner tries to demonstrate connection to the other partner. Whether it’s something as predictable as sex or flowers or something smaller and more subtle (like noticing which granola she’s running low on) I think if you observe a shift in that particular kind of energy/dynamic it’s a sign something is off. Ignore it at your own risk.


James J. Sexton