Eric was kind. He was funny, warm, and very attractive. He wasn't especially driven, nor all that ambitious when it came to finding work, but he had big dreams. These dreams, along with a muscular build on a 6'1" frame, are what drew Daniella, a nurse in her mid-20s, to him. At first, their chemistry was nearly palpable; she hung onto his every word, barely believing that someone like him was interested in her. Over the course of the next three months, she could hardly contain the excitement she felt for him. As months went on, however, his build and dreams stayed the same, but her excitement came to a screeching halt.
She couldn’t exactly pinpoint why and tried to find excuses — some valid and others not — about why her feelings had changed. But the truth of the matter was that her interest in the relationship was gone. Within the next few weeks, she grew distant and curt and found herself easily criticizing him, while beginning to flirt with other men. Sometimes she would voice her disappointment in their relationship to Eric; other times, he would voice his disappointment with her newfound attitude towards him. They tried to patch things up, which briefly motivated them to get closer, only to grow distant again and ultimately go their separate ways.
If Eric and Daniella's breakup seems familiar, that's because it is. According to research by Battaglia et al., when it comes to breaking up, an experience which over 85 percent of American adults have had at least once in their lifetimes, it all comes down to 16 steps:
1. A partner loses interest in his or her significant other.
2. The disinterested partner starts to notice attractive alternative options, who could make potential dating partners.
3. The disinterested partner begins to withdraw from the relationship emotionally and/or physically.
4. The partners try to work things out.
5. The partners spend less time together.
6. A lack of interest resurfaces again.
7. One partner, or perhaps this time both of them, consider ending things permanently.
8. The partners communicate their feelings with each other.
9. The partners try to work things out again.
10. Despite still trying to work things out, one or both begin to notice other people.
11. One or both partners begin to act distant.
12. One or both may go on dates with other people, while still seeing each other.
13. The cycle repeats itself as the partners decide to get back together again and try one last time.
14. One or both partners consider breaking up again.
15. One or both seriously distance themselves and gain a feeling of having moved on, while still technically being in the relationship.
16. The couple breaks up.
As noted by the researchers who analyzed 1,480 responses to derive this 16-step process, breaking up is cyclical, with a lack of interest, noticing of others, acting distant, and trying to work things out repeating for weeks, months, or even years. This cyclical pattern suggests just how much indecision goes into the dissolution of a relationship, which causes one or both partners to act in ways which characterize approach and avoidance behaviors — wanting to work things out, then growing distant again.
Unfortunately, despite the majority of us following the same 16-step script when breaking up, it still hurts to lose a once-loved one. What we can do with this knowledge is recognize that breakups are often plagued by indecision for one or both partners, and acknowledge that they are a difficult, but normal experience for everyone involved.
Battaglia, D. M., Richard, F. D., Datteri, D. L., & Lord, C. G. (1998). Breaking up is (relatively) easy to do: A script for the dissolution of close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15(6), 829-845.