What Are the Best and Worst Times to Break Up?

Research into when we can expect the most (and least) support.

Posted Dec 09, 2014

As it turns out there’s little research on the topic to support Wadler’s proposal, but there are studies in the field of relationship science to help us understand what happens to people who feel they must stay in a relationship despite feeling dissatisfied with it. Staying together due to upcoming holidays would fall into the category of one of these constraints. 

Kansas State University family studies researcher Amber Vennum and her colleagues (2014) investigated patterns of “cycling” among cohabiting and married couples. Among couples not in a committed relationship, the process is referred to as churning, but for people already committed, the less dramatic term cycling is used to convey the same sense of going in and out of the same relationship.

Using nationally representative samples of more than 300 cohabiting and more than 750 married couples, Vennum and her team asked partners to report, from memory, the times when they ended and renewed their relationship with the same person. A surprisingly high one-third and one-fifth of couples in each group of couples experienced at least one of these cycles.

As you might expect, the more frequently a couple cycles at one point in time, the greater the chances are that they will cycle again in the future. All the while, they remain less certain about their relationship’s likelihood of continuing and less satisfied in their relationship than non-cyclers. Relevant to the question of when it’s acceptable to end a relationship, cycling couples were more likely to have children who required child care, to have joint investments such as a home, and to have already gotten married rather than to be cohabiting.

Perhaps surprisingly, Vennum et al. found that it was the presence of these constraints, rather than dedication to the relationship itself that predicted whether a couple would get back together after a breakup. These constraints build up over time: The longer you are in a relationship, the more costly it is to extricate yourself. There’s a term from economics appropriate for this situation—“sunk costs.” Once you’ve invested in your relationship, you’ve already put so much into it that it becomes difficult, just from an economic standpoint, to get out.

Returning to the question of holiday breakups, it seems that, by extension, the expectation of family and friends that you remain a couple seems to present one important (though uninvestigated) constraint. The more connections you have to your partner's extended family and friendship circles, the more complicated those holiday gatherings become. Who should family members invite to a holiday party? To avoid putting them in an awkward situation, you may cover up a split entirely even if you and your partner have effectively ended your emotional connection.  

The problem with a relationship continuing past its expiration date is that the longer you remain together, the less emotionally fulfilling your situation becomes. You stay together for economic reasons, or due to family expectations, but you aren’t communicating at the deep personal level that facilitates and promotes intimacy.

On the other hand, having a supportive family, particularly at stressful times such as the holidays, may mitigate against the letdown you might otherwise experience due to relationship distress. SUNY Stony Brook’s Judith Crowell and associates (2014) examined the role of extended family in buffering the impact of a history of mood or depressive disorder on current symptoms. Among a sample of nearly 200 midlife adults, the presence of a supportive family helped to contribute to reduced risk of current symptoms. Being in a close marital relationship also played an important role. The point remains the same: When you are hurting emotionally, having an extended family is better for your mental health than not having one.

There’s also evidence to suggest that close friends can help you through tough times. Rather than shunning you after a breakup, your friends are more likely to be there for you—even if the timing is less than ideal. University of Manitoba psychologist Marian Morry and colleagues (2014) found that people in close same-sex friendships reciprocate their feelings toward each other, keeping the friendship bonds strong. There's some truth to the theme song from Friends, which proclaimed, “I’ll be there for you."

To sum up: It’s quite possible that a couple finds that holidays and other occasions present one additional constraint beyond the practicalities of child care and investment in their home. They may not want to go through the awkwardness of being newly single (or on break) when their families and friends are celebrating happy occasions or holiday gatherings. However, should they do so, they may be able to count on their families and friends to support them, even when the timing is less than ideal.

 

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References

Crowell, J. A., Dearing, E., Davis, C. R., Miranda-Julian, C., Barkai, A. R., Usher, N., & ... Mantzoros, C. (2014). Partnership and extended family relationship quality moderate associations between lifetime psychiatric diagnoses and current depressive symptoms in midlife. Journal Of Social And Clinical Psychology, 33(7), 612-629. doi:10.1521/jscp.2014.33.7.612

Morry, M. M., Hall, A., Mann, S., & Kito, M. (2014). A longitudinal investigation of the friendship model of relational interdependent self-construal. The Journal Of Social Psychology, 154(5), 401-422. doi:10.1080/00224545.2014.914883

Vennum, A., Lindstrom, R., Monk, J. K., & Adams, R. (2014). 'It's complicated': The continuity and correlates of cycling in cohabiting and marital relationships. Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships, 31(3), 410-430. doi:10.1177/0265407513501987

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