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A relationship breakup, often referred to simply as a breakup,[1] is the termination of an intimate relationship by any means other than death. The act is commonly termed "dumping [someone]" in slang when it is initiated by one partner.[2] 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."[3]

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'.[4]


Several psychological models have been proposed to explain the process of a relationship breakup, many suggesting that 'relationship dissolution occurs in stages'.[5]

Stages leading to a breakup[edit]

L. Lee[6] proposes that there are five stages leading ultimately up to a breakup.

  1. Dissatisfaction – one or both partners grow dissatisfied with the relationship
  2. Exposure – both partners mutually become aware of the problems in the relationship
  3. Negotiation – both partners attempt to negotiate a solution to problems
  4. Resolution and transformation – both partners apply the outcome of their negotiation
  5. Termination – proposed resolution fails to rectify issues and no further solutions are accepted or applied

Cycle of a breakup[edit]

Steve Duck outlines a six-stage cycle of relationship breakup,[7] including

  1. Dissatisfaction with the relationship
  2. Social withdrawal
  3. Discussion of the reasons for the discontentment
  4. Going public
  5. Tidying up the memories
  6. Recreating sense of one's own social value

Factors that predict a breakup before marriage[edit]

Hill, Rubin and Peplau[8] identify 5 factors that predicted breakup before marriage:

  1. Unequal involvement in the relationship
  2. Age difference
  3. Educational aspirations
  4. Intelligence
  5. Physical attractiveness

Uncoupling theory[edit]

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.[9]

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'.[10] 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'.[11]

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'.[12] 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'.[12]

Phases of grief[edit]

Grief counselor and breakup expert Susan J. Elliott[13] writes that the emotions of grief after a breakup are essentially the same as those of any grief process. Her research reflects that of Beverley Raphael[14] who likened the process of grief as "phases" rather than "stages." Elliott, who has researched grief extensively, writes that the phases of breakup grief are "Shock and Disbelief," "Review and Painful Relinquishment," and "Reorganization, Integration, and Acceptance." Any of these three phases may be skipped, repeated, or rearranged, depending on one's situation and personality.


According to John Fetto,[15] a survey conducted by eNation found that nearly one-third of all Americans have experienced a breakup in the past ten years. He also found that the younger the person, the more likely they are to have experienced more than one breakup in the last decade. It is believed[who?] that this is because young people are more actively dating than older generations[citation needed].


Depending on the emotional attachment, healing from a breakup can be a long process with multiple stages, which may include: sanctioning adequate time to recover, improving intrapersonal relationships and, ultimately, finding the motivation necessary to dismiss the breakup itself.

Laurie Helgoe,[16] believes that, "By releasing the past, you can approach new relationships with a fresh perspective and clearer vision." Releasing the relationship and the person physically from one's life will help to keep both from constantly resurfacing in everyday life. Releasing the relationship and the person from the mind and daily thoughts allocates more space to think about other important things, including future relationships.

Positive psychology stresses the up-side to relationship breakup, for example emphasizing research wherein 'students reported five positive changes in their lives from the break-up for every negative change', (although 'women report more growth after a relationship break-up'[17] than do men). Once freed from 'the collusive solace of coupledom',[18] the newly emerging singleton has to see him- or herself as 'a separate person in the world, standing alone facing his future, having to make his own choices from the new position of unwanted freedom'.[19] If seen as an opportunity, however, 'this process of self-rediscovery and independent expansion of self is important for anyone experiencing a romantic relationship break-up'.[20]

New York City-based psychoanalyst and psychotherapist Janice Lieberman, PhD, says not every relationship deserves a dramatic breakup. How you experience your relationship depends on how you handle the breakup.[21]

You can ease the process of recovery by pursuing a routine for regular health and relaxation. Using Science to Heal from Breakups describes a number of approaches to activating your parasympathetic nervous system to provide rest, recovery and strengthen our capacity for the challenges breakups create.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Breakup". Retrieved 2012-05-28. 
  2. ^ "Dumping". The Online Slang Dictionary. Retrieved 2012-05-28. 
  3. ^ "The Break-Up: What to do when you call off your wedding& How to handle a broken engagement". Retrieved 2012-05-28. 
  4. ^ John H. Harvey, Perspectives on Loss (1998) p. 106
  5. ^ Harvey, p. 106
  6. ^ Lee, L. (1984). "Sequences in Separation: A Framework for Investigating Endings of the Personal (Romantic) Relationship". Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 1 (1): 49–73. doi:10.1177/0265407584011004. 
  7. ^ Steve Duck et al, The Basics of Communication (2011) p. 151 Table 6.2
  8. ^ Hill, Charles T.; Rubin Zick; Peplau Letita Anne (1976). "Breakups Before Marriage: The End of 103 Affairs". Journal of Social Issues 32: 147–168. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4560.1976.tb02485.x. Retrieved 26 September 2012. 
  9. ^ Vaughan, Diane (1986). Uncoupling – Turning Points in Intimate Relationships. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-679-73002-8.  p. 81 and p. 218n
  10. ^ Vaughan, p. 60
  11. ^ Vaughan, p. 154
  12. ^ a b Vaughan, p. 6
  13. ^ Elliott, Susan J. (2009). Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You. Da Capo Lifelong Books. 
  14. ^ Raphael, Beverley (1983). The Anatomy of Bereavement. Basic Books. 
  15. ^ Fetto, John (2003) – Love Stinks: Statistics on Failed Relationships. BNet: Business Network Retrieved January 25, 2008
  16. ^ Helgoe, Laurie A. (2006). The Pocket Idiot's Guide to Breaking Up. New York, NY: Penguin Group. ISBN 978-1-59257-570-1.
  17. ^ Shane J. Lopez, Positive Psychology (2008) p. 31 and p. 39
  18. ^ Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (1994) p. 159
  19. ^ David Cooper, The Death of the Family (1974) p. 50
  20. ^ Lopez, p. 43
  21. ^ How to Break Up Gracefully. Retrieved 2014-02-05.

Further reading[edit]