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Relationship Dissolution

Duck's Model, Relationships After BreakupConclusion

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.

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.


Altman, I., and Taylor, D. (1973). Social Penetration: The Development 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.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationships