We Need To Talk: How and Why We Break-Up

Communicating relational termination

Posted Jan 02, 2013

As the New Year approached, many individuals formed resolutions for 2013. As always, a common one was weight loss; dramatic weight loss could occur if you lost a hundred or two hundred pounds in the form of your romantic partner.  Let’s hope that wasn’t your romantic partner’s resolution, or else your midnight kiss was quite awkward.

We’ve all been involved in break-ups: we’ve all dumped someone and we’ve all been dumped. We may convince ourselves it was mutual, but was it? Perhaps one of you thought the two of you were better off as friends? That said, are we really friends with a lot of our former partners? Just some food for thought…

Learning more about relational termination (e.g., break-ups) can help us better understand this process. Research reveals seven reasons why couples break-up (see Duck; Levine & Fitzpatrick). One reason couples break-up is sudden death, which occurs when “new, negatively charged information is discovered about [one’s] partner.” Second, couples break-up because of mechanical failure where  “partners have incompatible goals or values.” Still, pre-existing doom may be the reason; simply “partners are inherently incompatible.” Or, process loss may be to blame where the “relationship does not reach full potential because…partners [do] not make use of all available resources.” Network can be the break-up culprit, occurring when “friends and/or family do not support [the] partner or the relationship.” Related, loss of personal freedom occurs when one feels his/her “partner is controlling” or the “feeling that the relationship has become too restrictive.” Finally, distance may be the reason for relational termination; that is, the relationship is long distance or a partner moved.

In Levine and Fitzpatrick’s study, the most common reasons for break-ups were process loss, distance, loss of personal freedom, and sudden death.

In our failed relationships there comes a point when we become aware of one the above reasons and the impeding break-up (that is, of course, if we are the one initiating the break-up). The question then becomes what are common ways that we communicate relational termination?

Research identifies six common break-up messages (see Cody; Levine & Fitzpatrick). One method used was avoiding your partner, where one “abruptly stopped any form of communication with [his/her] partner without warning.” Distinct from that method, some directly told their partner that they wanted to break up. A slight variation from this method involved indirectly informing your partner, where one “gave verbal or nonverbal ‘hints’ expressing desire to end the relationship [and/or] engaged in behaviors that would cause [your] partner to break up.” Unfortunately, others employed the use of a third party. As surprising and elementary as this sounds, this method involved using another person to terminate your relationship. Finally, individuals used justifications in one of two ways, providing either the actual reason or a false reason for wanting to break-up.

In Levine and Fitzpatrick’s study, the most common techniques were directly telling your partner and using the actual reason as a justification.

Although break-ups are both awkward and painful, the above information allows us a better understanding of how and why our relationships might have failed. As humans are uncomfortable with uncertainty (Berger & Calbrese, 1975), such an understanding helps us in better understanding our own relational experiences.

Follow me on Twitter @therealdrsean for relationship commentary/links, complaints about mass transit, and support for WVU Athletics. Continue to follow this blog for future entries about deception, online dating, using affection to lie, workplace romance, and other issues that make obtaining and retaining a mate oh so interesting.    

Additional reading:

Levine, T., & Fitzpatrick, S. L. (2005). You know why, the question is how?

Relationships between reasons and methods in romantic 

breakups. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 

International Communication Association, NY.