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The Breakdown Of Romantic Relationships

Updated on January 28, 2014

Reasons for relationship breakdown

There are several reasons why a couple may experience a breakdown of their relationship and according to Duck (1999) these reasons can be split into 3 categories.

  • Lack of stimulation -

Lack of stimulation can occur when you expect the relationship to change and develop and this does not happen. Baxter et al said that belief that the relationship wasn't going anywhere along with boredom were quoted by people breaking off their romantic relationship.

  • Lack of skills -

Duck suggested that if a person lacks interpersonal skills or social skills then they may be poor conversationalists and bad at indicating that they like a particular person. This could lead their partner to believe that they are uninteresting, don't like them or are generally unrewarding in their interactions. Therefore lack of skills can lead to the breakdown of a relationship before it really gets started.

  • Maintenance difficulties -

This reason for relationship breakdown refers to the strain caused to a relationship when the couple simply cannot see each other for various reasons. This may be because they don't live near to each other or they have job times which makes it hard to find time to spend together etc. Shaver et al conducted a study into maintenance difficulties in the breakdown of romantic relationships and found that when students go to university it makes it harder to see each other regularly and this is usually the reason for the subsequent breakdown of the relationship.


There have been criticisms of Duck's reasons for relationship breakdown including the fact that as the theory was put forward in 1999 it may be outdated by now. For example the model stresses maintenance difficulties and the idea that if couples cannot see each other regularly this may cause the relationship to breakdown, however with the introduction of social networking (such as facebook and skype) it could be argued this isn't such a problem any more. It is possible for a couple to have a long distance relationship and still feel satisfied with the relationship as they are keeping the communication going virtually. Holt and Stone found that there was little decrease in relationship satisfaction so long as couples were able to see each other regularly (whether that be in real life or virtually).

Ethical issues and gender differences

The area of relationship breakdown is a particularly sensitive area and therefore getting meaningful results may be quite hard to achieve. The ethical issues that arise from carrying out research in this area are vulnerability (reliving the breakdown of a relationship can cause distress), privacy (many of the topics discussed and the reasons for the breakup may be very personal) and confidentiality.

Another limitation of research into the area of relationship breakdown is the fact that there are significant gender differences which have not been taken into account. It has been found that women are more likely to stress unhappiness and incompatibility for the reasons for the breakdown of a relationship whereas men tend to stress sexual dissatisfaction. Boekhout et al asked undergraduates to rate various sexual and emotional reasons for men and women to be unfaithful in a committed relationship and found that participants judged sexual reasons for infidelity would be more likely used by men and emotional reasons more likely to be used by women. This is something that the model does not consider and therefore limits it's generalisability.

A model of relationship breakdown

So, we have reasons for breakdown but what is the actual process that occurs after the relationship problems are identified? Rollie and Duck suggested a model of breakdown which splits the process into 6 steps (3 private and 3 social). These steps are...

  • Breakdown

This is when dissatisfaction with the relationship is identified for reasons mentioned above or if they feel that the relationship is inequitable or unfair.

  • Intrapsychic process

This stage involves the individual focusing on their partners flaws and the cons of the relationship. They wont talk to the partner but rather brood over the relationship and think about their alternatives if they were to leave.

  • Dyadic process

In this stage the person will confront their partner about their unhappiness and begin to talk about their feelings and the future of the relationship. The relationship may be saved at this point if the couple can reassess their goals, commitments and demands and come to a compromise.

  • Social process

If the relationship was not saved in the step above then social processes occur whereby the person will seek support from friends and family and inform them of their dissatisfaction. The third parties may help them to sort out their disputes and differences or alternatively they could take sides or even speed up the demise of the relationship. At this point the couple will either break up or not.

  • Grave-dressing process

At this point the couple have split up and this stage focuses on the partners 'tidying' up their memories of each other and trying to justify their actions in ending the relationship. Each partner will present themselves to others as being the 'better person' and show that they are trustworthy and loyal so that future relationships may succeed. The person may reinterpret their view of their, now ex, partner in order to justify their actions.

  • Resurrection process

This final stage involves the person recreating a sense of social value and trying to redefine themselves and what they want from future relationships. They prepare themselves for the future by learning from their old relationship what they want and don't want from a future relationship.

Supporting evidence

Tashiro and Fraizer observed real life relationships in order to see if the stages of relationship breakdown proposed by Duck were accurate. After surveying undergraduates who had recently broken up with their romantic partner it was found that a lot of the time the students reported that they had experienced personal group after their break-up and said that they now have a clearer idea about what they want from future relationships. This evidence supports the last two steps in the model of breakdown as it suggests that the individuals were able to move on from their old relationships and get on with their lives.

Limitations of the evidence

Despite the fact that the study conducted by Tashiro and Fraizer did support aspects of the breakdown model it does have certain limitations. For example, they only surveyed people who had broken up with their partners, however in the dyadic process of the model it suggests that people can experience some of the stages and still continue with their relationship. To overcome this limitation a study would have to be conducted that surveys couples who are still together as well as ones that have broken up to see if they had experienced any of the stages but managed to communicate their problems efficiently and save their relationship.

Also the research was only conducted on students that weren't married. If a couple were married then the fact that getting a divorce is a lot more complicated and hard than simply breaking up may motivate them to sort out their issues. Also, the students probably do not have children or other commitments that would motivate them to stay in a relationship. Therefore the results cannot be generalised to all relationships as the breakdown of a relationship may be more complex and involve more reasons than originally thought.


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    • Philanthropy2012 profile image


      6 years ago from London

      Very nice hub, useful with regards to both psychology and for general knowledge!


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