A relationship breakup, often referred to simply as a breakup, is the termination of an by any means other than death. The act is commonly termed "dumping [someone]" in slang when it is initiated by one partner. The term is less likely to be applied to a married couple, where a breakup is typically called a separation or divorce. When a couple engaged to be married breaks up, it is typically called a "broken engagement".
Susie Orbach (1992) has argued that the dissolution of dating and cohabiting relationships can be as painful as or more painful than divorce because these nonmarital relationships are less socially recognized.
Several models have been proposed to explain the process of a relationship breakup, many suggesting that 'relationship dissolution occurs in stages'.
Stages leading to a breakup
L. Lee proposes that there are five stages ultimately leading up to a breakup.
- Dissatisfaction – one or both partners grow dissatisfied with the relationship
- Exposure – both partners mutually become aware of the problems in the relationship
- Negotiation – both partners attempt to negotiate a solution to problems
- Resolution and transformation – both partners apply the outcome of their negotiation
- Termination – proposed resolution fails to rectify issues and no further solutions are accepted or applied
Cycle of a breakup
Steve Duck outlines a six-stage cycle of relationship breakup, including
- Dissatisfaction with the relationship
- Social withdrawal
- Discussion of the reasons for the discontentment
- Going public
- Tidying up the memories
- Recreating sense of one's own social value
Factors that predict a breakup before marriage
Hill, Rubin and Peplau identify 5 factors that predicted breakup before marriage:
- Unequal involvement in the relationship
- Age difference
- Educational aspirations
- Physical attractiveness
In 1976, sociologist Diane Vaughan proposed an "uncoupling theory," where there exists a "turning point" in the dynamics of relationship breakup – 'a precise moment when they "knew the relationship was over," when "everything went dead inside"' – followed by a transition period in which one partner unconsciously knows the relationship is going to end, but holds on to it for an extended period, even for years.
Vaughan considered that the process of breakup was asymmetrical for initiator and respondent: the former 'has begun mourning the loss of the relationship and has undertaken something tantamount to a rehearsal, mentally and, to varying degrees, experientially, of a life apart from the partner'. The latter then has to play catch-up: 'to make their own transition out of the relationship, partners must redefine initiator and relationship negatively, legitimating the dissolution'.
As a result, for Vaughan 'getting out of a relationship includes a redefinition of self at several levels: in the private thoughts of the individual, between partners, and in the larger social context in which the relationship exists'. She considered that 'uncoupling is complete when the partners have defined themselves and are defined by others as separate and independent of each other – when being partners is no longer a major source of identity'.