Relationship Dissolution

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Relationship Dissolution

Relationship dissolution refers to the process of the breaking up of relationships (friendship, romantic, or marital relationships) by the voluntary activity of at least one partner. Such a definition excludes such eventualities as bereavement and refers to the conscious and intentional ending of relationships. Nonetheless, there is some dispute about the nature of "intentionality" and whether to include those relationships that end simply by default (e.g., friends who drift apart and purposely just let their contacts drop off) or incompetence (e.g., inability of one partner to be supportive or disclosive or to handle intimacy). This entry will focus on cases where one or other person purposefully ends a relationship. It does not deal with friendship breakup, because this happens largely by (one of) the parties just allowing the relationship to wither on the vine. In romantic or marital relationships, such neglect is not normally enough to end relationships and they must typically be declared to have ended not only by the activities of the partners themselves but also by some formal action recognized by society at large, such as divorce or separation. Such declarations render both partners "available" again for similar sorts of relationships with new partners.

Older scholarly models of dissolution (Davis 1973) tended to look for "causes" of breakup and tried to locate them in the partners or the processes of the relationships. Thus some explanations rested on the mismatch of characteristics of partners (their personalities were not compatible), flaws in mechanics of relationships (there was too much conflict), and dissolution as "sudden death" (an event created by the precipitate and inconsiderate action of one partner). Such accounts tended to treat the breakup as an event, announced by one partner to the other or brought about at a particular time by a specific occurrence or by the final recognition that incompatibility was insuperable. Social Penetration Theory (Altman and Taylor 1973) has suggested that breakdown of relationships is something like the development of relationships, only backwards, such that partners gradually withdraw from the relationship in ways similar to those in which they enter the relationship. Later work (Johnson 1982) considered the accoutrements to such an event and noted the effects of such barrier forces as the presence of children on marriage and the ways in which partners may first consider the effects of divorce on their children rather than on their own personal feelings alone. Some research suggested that fears of neighbors' and family's reactions might outweigh the unhappiness felt in a relationship and so the partners would soldier on.

The above views all take it as a given that a divorce is a "failed" relationship, and that a breakup is inherently a bad thing that violates social expectations about the nature of marriage and romance. Although there are different views on this in the research, many researchers now see the rescuing of individuals from otherwise bad relationships (such as abusive marriages) as a success rather than a failure. Such approaches have tended to move away from the simple equation of endurance of a marriage as a measure of its success, although our society specifically continues to equate stamina with accomplishment (for example, by celebrating twenty-fifth, fiftieth, and sixtieth wedding anniversaries). However, people facing the prospect of divorce or breakup very often must contend with the added stress of the feeling that they have somehow "failed" if their relationship is ended. This sense is often based in the normativity of "couplehood" and the fact that by a certain age or stage in life a person is "expected" to have a stable life partner.

More recently, scholars have chosen to examine the long-term processes of separating and the ways in which third parties (children, relatives, friends) inflect the whole process. These models of dissolution recognize that a relationship always takes place within a set of other relationships: members of any given couple know other people, have their own relatives and friends, and are likely to discuss their relationship problems and successes with these people. These networks of other folks can be powerful influences on whether and how the relationship between the couple breaks up. For example, acquaintances and friends may bring out standard advice that there are always difficulties in marriages and that these will often pass away with time, or, alternatively, they may reveal that they did not ever like the partner and could not understand how the marriage would work out anyway!

Another thread of research is to treat dissolution as something negotiated over time between partners, and involving strategies by which partners persuade one another out of the relationship. Such proposals treat dissolution as a complex and multifaceted activity with several phases and aspects, and, in particular, treat dissolution as partly a network activity (or at least as an activity involving outsiders also). Such approaches focus less on the relationship difficulties that led to the wish to separate and more on the ways in which dissolution is managed. Such researchers note that everyone has a social face, a sense of their own personal dignity and worth. These approaches treat dissolution as involving issues of facework, where both partners hope to come out of the experience with some sense of their own dignity sustained, so that they can make themselves available for future relationships without being seen as "damaged goods." In some cases, dissolution may be treated as a matter of teamwork. Here the goal is that the partners should create a dissolution that manages to leave both people with their social faces undamaged. For example, the partners could make clear to everyone else that they agreed amicably to split up, that they are seriously attempting to remain friends, and that neither of them was at fault: things just didn't work out.

In this account of breakup of relationships, dissolution is treated as a time-framed process extending over several episodes of interaction and not as a single event (although scholars recognize that such instant breakups do of course occur as a result of some sudden mischance). The approach here is to treat dissolution as involving strategies and choices between them. For example a partner wishing to dissolve a relationship may simply announce Bald On Record (i.e. without redress) that the relationship is over, although this does not in itself mean that the partner will accept the news quietly or without debate. Another strategy used in breakups is to convince the partner that a mature and intelligent person would see that it is in her or his best interests to breakup (positive alter-casting). Gerry Miller and Mac Parks (1982) listed sixteen different strategies like this that could be used by persons wishing to convince another person to let them go.

A major development in more recent approaches to relationship dissolution is to treat dissolution as an integral part of the partners' lives and activities, not as a separate process. This development sees the negotiations and completion of a breakup as something intimately intertwined with the other projects and activities that the two people conduct in their daily lives, involving the same sorts of conversational processes.

Duck's Model

Steve Duck (1998, 1982) suggested that the dissolution of relationships is an extended process composed of several different parts, which might be either sequential or compounded. In this approach the breakup of a relationship is not simply an event that occurs and to which two partners react. Rather it is a long-term psychological process involving internal reflection, discussion with a partner, consultation with social networks, and the creation of personally satisfying stories about the history of the relationship from beginning to end.

The first Intrapsychic Phase of this process involves an individual brooding on the fact that the relationship is not satisfactory in some way from his or her perspective. Although the complaints may be voiced to other people, the point here is that the persons complained to do not personally know the partner complained of. The point of this stage is mostly to vent (for example, to a hair-dresser, bartender, or distant colleague at work), but not to convey to the partner that dissatisfaction is felt. Such dissatisfaction may be about such things as partner's habits, feeling trapped in a relationship, a sense of injustice about distribution of effort, or a sense of hopelessness about resolution of an argument. In fact nothing more may come of the brooding: The person feels a sense of grievance but does not necessarily proceed to the next stage if the process of venting or reflection is adequate to relieve the sense of negativity about the relationship. Such brooding may be a recurrent activity, and probably occurs in most relationships at some time or another without leading to breakup. Alternatively, if the brooding Intrapsychic Phase does not result in satisfaction of the grievance by itself then the person moves to the next stage.

The Dyadic Phase emerges when the couple is confronted with the dissatisfaction experienced by one or both partners such that the dyad needs to discuss and evaluate it. Again, such discussions can be constructive and might lead to a rapprochement in the relationship or they can be threatening and unpleasant. Likewise, they could be recurrent complaints extended over a long period or sudden announcements of new concerns. Such discussion might be a shock to one partner, but in any case, it is likely that each person will be confronted with unknown perspectives on the relationship presented by the other person. Each person will have a view of the relationship and when challenged to present it as an individual, the person may break ranks from the usual points of view of the relationship that both members of the couple have previously shared. The tenor and outcome of the Dyadic Phase will be a large factor in the way that things proceed from it. One person may be determined to leave and proceed to do so, or both may want to give things another shot. It is only if things proceed to the next stage that the relationship gets into very serious difficulty that begins an almost unstoppable process of dissolution.

The next phase, a Social Phase, involves the social networks in which the dyad is necessarily embedded—all those other people whose lives intertwine with the couple or one of its members. Such people are not neutral observers but tend to comment on relationships and on the ways in which they are conducted, voicing opinions and common wisdom about how people "should" react to marital transgressions or to difficulties in relationships. Any dyad needs to exist within such groups and is therefore accountable to them to some extent. Such accounting, advice, and comparison go on throughout a relationship, not only when it is in trouble, but also are particularly important when a relationship hits the rocks. Dyad members then urgently consult with their associates to account for the breakdown of the relationship, or receive advice on how to stay together and deal with the difficulties. At this point, however, the breakdown becomes a social event—not merely something between the two members of the couple—and therefore becomes "official." As soon as other people know that the relationship is broken up then either partner becomes socially available as a partner to new people. However, it is important to note that the breakup of a given dyad in a relationship network has fallout for other relationships also. Relationships with couple friends, the partner's work associates, the partner's family, and so on may all dissolve because of the termination of the primary relationship. Of course, relationship dissolution creates a psychological toll on one or both members, members of the network (who do not want to see the relationship end), and children. Rarely does a relationship end that has no consequence for anyone else.

Last comes the Grave-Dressing Phase. An important and under-recognized feature of the breakup of relationships is the need for people to publish a record of the relationship and its death. For various reasons, both psychological and social, people "need" to justify themselves to other people and, in particular, to offer an account of the breakup that shows them in a favorable light relative to relational standards in the society. Such stories typically suggest that the breakup was inevitable and necessary for the person to bring about, or else maturely and mutually agreed, or else that the speaker was somehow duped or betrayed by the other person. Such stories serve a social function in placing the speaker in a good light that does not negatively affect their "face" for future relationships, as well as indicating that they are thinking and mature relaters—or innocent victims—who have learned a useful lesson. This sort of story is important for those people who seek to negotiate future relationships of a similar sort to the one lost. It is important that people are not perceived as irresponsible partners, damaged goods, or relationally naïve, all of which would be negative characteristics to take into a future relationship.

Relationships after Breakup

When researchers have examined relationships of couples after divorce or breakup they have most often examined the relationships of noncustodial parents with their children, although there is also work on the consequences of broken dating relationships (e.g., Metts, Cupach, and Bejlovec 1989). Most research suggests that relationships between ex-spouses have typically been acrimonious or difficult but the existence of children gives them little choice about meeting. If they take their roles as parents seriously then they will need to continue to interact in order to consider and discuss the future of the children or to see one another at social or educational events involving the children. Recent research has shown a more complicated picture with several examples of good relationships between ex-partners, some of whom report closer friendships after divorce than when they were married. Many people stay friends after the end of their romance and discover that one of the most difficult tasks is to work out a plausible account of their current friendship to tell other people. They must find a way in which to handle people's typical suspicion that the friendship is really a disguised sexual relationship. Such recent evidence strongly suggests that the process of relationship dissolution is not simply an emotional decision but a long-term process with consequences for accounting to other people.


Breakup of relationships should not be seen as a single event or an individual choice but a long-term process involving negotiation and communication between not only the partners themselves but also the rest of the network within which the relationship is conducted.

See also:Communication: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Divorce: Effects on Couple; Divorce Mediation; Equity; Infidelity; Social Networks


altman, i., and taylor, d. (1973). social penetration: thedevelopment of interpersonal relationships. new york: holt, rinehart and winston.

battaglia, d. m.; richard, f. d.; datteri, d. l.; and lord, c. g. (1998). "breaking up is (relatively) easy to do: a script of the dissolution of close relationships." journal of social and personal relationships 15(6):829–845.

davis, m. s. (1973). intimate relations. new york: free press.

duck, s. w. (1982). "a topography of relationship disengagement and dissolution." in personal relationships 4: dissolving personal relationships, ed. s. w. duck. london: academic press.

duck, s. w. (1998). human relationships, 3rd edition. newbury park, ca: sage.

johnson, m. (1982). "social and cognitive features of dissolving commitment to relationships." in personal relationships 4: dissolving personal relationships, ed. s. w. duck. london: academic press.

metts, s.; cupach, w. r.; and bejlovec, r. a. (1989). "'i love you too much to ever start liking you.'" journal of social and personal relationships 6:259–274.

miller, g. r., and parks, m. r. (1982). "communication in dissolving relationships." in personal relationships 4: dissolving personal relationships, ed. s. w. duck. london: academic press.

o'connor, t. g; pickering, k.; dunn, j.; and goldin, j. (1999). "frequency and predictors of relationship dissolution in a community sample in england." journal of family psychology 13(3):436–499.

specher, s., and fehr, b. (1998). "the dissolution of close relationships." in perspectives on loss: a sourcebook. death, dying, and bereavement, ed. j. h. harvey. philadelphia: brunner/mazel.

steve duck stephanie rollie