The 5 Stages of a Relationship Coming to an End
... and 20 questions to help you figure out if you should look for an exit.
Posted Oct 25, 2016
The end of an intimate relationship is generally a painful process in which you and/or your partner must accept that you will no longer be together. In some cases, it’s a great relief that things are drawing to a close, particularly if one partner has suffered some type of abuse or domestic violence. In other cases, the end involves a gradual drifting apart that occurs over a period of weeks, days, or years.
New research on the phases of change in relationship endings reveals more about this process, and how to tell if you might be already be in it.
University of Tennessee psychologists Kathrin Ritter, Vanessa Handsel, and Todd Moore (2016) developed a scale to assess the stages they believe characterize the ending of close relationships. Their primary interest was in being able to determine how far along individuals involved in violent dating relationships were in being able to extricate themselves from these harmful alliances. However, the scale they ultimately developed can be applied more generally to anyone exiting an unhappy relationship.
The researchers based their scale on a theory developed by James Prochaska in the 1980s and 1990s, which proposes that any sort of major change in life involves a five-stage process. Rather than simply seeing the ending of a relationship—violent or otherwise—as a simple stay-or-leave situation, the “Stages of Change” model assumes that there are steps that precede it and others that follow. By understanding these stages, therapists or counselors can better help individuals undergoing change. If you are going through an important life transition, you can use this knowledge to gain insight into why you feel the way you do.
In the Ritter, et al study, 83 questions were administered to a large sample of undergraduates with the intention of developing a shorter version that would tap into the entire range of stages. The questionnaire that emerged, called “Stages of Change in Relationship Status (SCORS),” has 20 items, with four that assess each of the five stages. Following the development of SCORS, the team asked another sample of students to complete it on two occasions, two months apart. At the beginning of the two-month period, participants were required to be in an intimate relationship; by the time the period had elapsed, about 20 percent had broken up with that partner.
Given that this was a college sample (with an average age of 20 years old), the average length of relationship was about one year and a large percentage (45 percent) were briefer. Based on self-report of violence in the relationship, 79 percent reported that they perpetrated some form of violence—psychological, physical, or sexual coercion, with 9 percent injuring their partner—and 77 percent reported being victims (with 11 percent being injured by their partner). Although most of the relationship violence was psychological in nature, the approximately 10 percent of the sample involved in injuries is, of course, worrisome. The correspondence of percentages suggests that the people taking these questionnaires were reasonably honest in their reporting of difficulties in their relationship.
The findings on changes over the two time points suggest that the questionnaire worked quite well in tapping into where participants were in making the decision to leave a relationship. People with higher scores at baseline on the stages of change were in fact more likely to leave by follow-up. Those in abusive relationships also showed greater progress toward leaving over the two-month period, but unfortunately only a few actually had done so. In other words, people who think they are ready to change may find that it’s more difficult to do so when it actually comes to making that change, even if the relationship is unhealthy.
With this in mind, let’s look at the five stages captured on the SCORS. The scale items do an excellent job of defining the stage, so you can evaluate yourself as well as learn what the stages mean:
Factor 1: Precontemplation (no change being considered)
1. I am happy with my relationship as it is.
2. My relationship is ﬁne; there is no need to change it.
3. My relationship is not that bad.
4. There is no need for me to do anything about my relationship.
Factor 2: Contemplation (starting to think about change)
5. Sometimes I think I should end my relationship.
6. I believe that my relationship is not healthy for me.
7. I’m beginning to see that my relationship is a problem.
8. I’m beginning to feel the harmful impact of my relationship.
Factor 3: Preparation (getting ready to end the relationship)
9. Although it is difﬁcult to end my relationship, I am making plans to do it anyway.
10. I have started working on ending my relationship, but I would like some help.
11. I intend to end my relationship within the next month.
12. I intend to end my relationship very soon, but am not sure the best way to do it.
Factor 4: Action (initiating the relationship's end)
13. I have told my partner that I am ending the relationship.
14. I talk less to my partner when we’re together.
15. I have started spending more time with other people and less time with my partner.
16. I ﬁnd myself thinking about my partner less and less.
Factor 5: Maintenance (sticking with the relationship's end)
17. I changed my daily routine to avoid any association with my partner.
18. I avoid places where I know I will see my partner.
19. I have thrown away items that belong to my partner, or taken steps to get rid of things that remind me of him/her.
20. I will never return to my partner.
The research team did not report the mean scores on these five scales, but the clear interpretation from their data is that your profile of scores across all of them (i.e. if you have close to a total of 36 on any one scale) represents where you are in the leaving process. These scores should work better than a simple “yes" or "no” on whether you want to leave your partner or not. Further, if you’re in the pre-contemplation stage, the items in the remaining four stages suggest questions you might want to ask yourself if you should think about moving through the change process. Given how difficult it is for people even in abusive relationships to extricate themselves, having an idea of the questions to grapple with as you look ahead may prove beneficial in helping you figure out where to go next.
Ritter, K., Handsel, V., & Moore, T. (2016). Stages of change in relationship status questionnaire: Development and validation. Journal of College Counseling, 19(2), 154-167. doi:10.1002/jocc.12038
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016