Early research in the area of relationship dissolution tended to focus limitedly on the statistics of breakdowns rather than the actual process. More recently, psychologists have begun to look into the specific causes and characteristics of relationships that failed. One of the most well-known models of this topic is the five-staged model of dissolution by Lee (1984). Through a survey of 112 romantic breakups, Lee proposed five distinct stages leading to relationship ending.
These proceed from Dissatisfaction to Exposure of this dissatisfaction, Negotiating, attempting Resolution of the problem and finally Termination of the relationship.
Lee found that Exposure of dissatisfaction and Negotiating are the most exhaustive of the five stages. Couples went straight from the first to the last stage reported having less intimacy, even when the relationship was satisfactory, than those whose journey from D to T was prolonged.
Lee’s stage model of dissolution is not the only one: Duck (1999) research also led to a stage model. In the first stage, called the breakdown phase, one of the partner gets unhappy about the relationship.
Second stage, labelled the intrapsychic phase- the dissatisfied partner broods over the relationship, but still keeps it to themselves. This phase ends when they begin to communicate, indirectly though – through hints, friends or anyone from a third party. Direct communication between the two partners comes in the third stage, referred to as the dyadic phase, when it’s time for confrontation with the other person.
This phase is characterised with arguments and raising the question about the future of the relationship. The two people are also aware that they are heading for a breakup. If there is no sign of improvements, in other words, if no “repair” is made, in the next stage of relationship ending – the social phase, family and friends are told about the coming breakup and the social networks of both partners change accordingly. These people may take sides, offer advice and support, and help in mending any dispute between the two sides of the relationship.
Social networks serve an important role in sustaining the relationship, however, they may even speed up the partners towards dissolution (e.g. through revelations about one of them). As a final stage, identified as the grave-dressing phase, the two partners leave the commitment. In other words, a breakup is inevitable. Both partners move on and the relationship is “buried” as another page of their personal life history.
Both these models of dissolution see the breakup as a series of phases that the relationship would go through before actually breaking down. In other words, it shows that dissolution is not a sudden step but a gradual process. In Lee’s model, there is more emphasis on the early stages, when there is still the possibility that the relationship could be saved, while in Duck’s model, the emphasis is on the beginning and the end. This model also has the advantage of identifying phases when things start to go wrong that can be applied to relationship counselling. Duck (1998) suggested that if a relationship is in the intrapsychic phase, repair should aim to bring back affection for a partner rather than correcting behaviour faults. However, both these models do not include the experience of breaking up.
Akert (1998) found that the more both partners were involved in the decisions about the relationship, the fewer physical symptoms they experienced. However, the model does not consider the gender differences in the disagreement leading to dissolution. Women are more likely to stress unhappiness and incompatibility as reasons for breaking up, whereas men are particularly concerned with “sexual withholding” (Brehm and Kassin 1996). Females have more desire to stay friends after the relationship has ended, while males usually want to “cut their losses” and move on (Akert 1998). Moreover, these models do not explain why the relationship breaks down – they just describe the process.
There are a number of other models and theories attempting to explain relationship dissolution. In their Rule Violation theory, Argyle and Henderson asked participants to think of a specific relationship that had lapsed and rate the extent to which failure to keep friendship rules contributed to the breakdown of the friendship. The most critical rule violations found to be: jealousy, lack of tolerance for a third-party relationship, disclosing confidences, not volunteering help when needed, publicly criticise the person, etc. This research offered insights into the factors leading to relationship breakdown.
The research also had a good, large sample of participants (around 160 ppts from various age and backgrounds). They found that when asked about the greatest factor in breaking up a friendship, women tended to identify lack of emotional support, while men were concerned with lack of joking. Younger participants took public criticism more seriously, whereas older people (over 20s), said that lack of respect and requests for personal advice were more important.
Hays and Oxley (1986) found that the most adaptive social networks for first-year university students involved new friends who were also university students rather than old school or neighbourhood friends. They concluded that as individuals enter new life situations, they may encounter new acquaintances and therefore must continually restructure their social networks in order to fit their changing identities and life environments. The strong point of this view is that it suggests friendship dissolution is sometimes essential in individuals’ developmental process, so that they can move on in life. However, the study only looked at college students and thus only adaptation to college life, so it may have a rather limited application to other life circumstances.
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