Relationship Dissolution


Altman and Taylor (1973)

It has been argued that the main factor in why relationship dissolve is a change in the level of self-disclosure, this is called the Social Penetration theory and was proposed by Altman and Taylor in 1973. This theory states that that partners will reach a normal level of detail and amount of information they share with each other. This theory states that the breakdown of a relationship then starts due to Depenetration, which is when one or both of the partnered individuals stops revealing the same ‘norm’ of information.

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Dindia and Allen (1992)

There is also supporting studies in this area, such as Dindia and Allen 1992, who carried out a meta-analysis on 205 studies and found that on average, women self-disclose more than men with their romantic partners of the opposite sex and with their same sex friends. However there was no difference between men and women in their self-disclosure levels to male friends. This study supports the idea of people having a ‘norm’ of self-disclosure with some scientific evidence, giving the theory more validity. This study also expands this theory as well as supporting as the study looks at non-sexual relationships with a self-disclosure norm.

(-) However, this study can be criticised due to the fact that it does not discuss the dissolution of relationships, but rather the maintenance of relationships, a strength of this study however is the large sample size of 205 studies which make up this evidence.



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Argyle and Henderson’s (1989)

 A separate study which supports the Social Penetration theory is Argyle and Henderson’s study in 1989, which looked into friendship ‘rules’. Participants thought of a friendship that had broken down and the reasons for this. They found that rule violation was the most important reasons, for example jealousy, third parties or public criticism. This study widens the theory to make ‘Depenetration’ a possible factor, or the breaking of a relationship rule that could lead to the dissolution of a relationship.

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Ducks (1999)

Another theory of why relationships break-down is Ducks 3 reasons for dissolution. Whereas Altman and Taylor only give one reason for the dissolution of relationships in the social Penetration Theory, Duck (1999) elaborates his explanations for why relationships breakdown into three factors which are, a lack of skills, lack of stimulation and lack of contact. Therefore you could suggest that this theory takes a more holistic view of relationships, making it a much more generalizable theory than the Social Penetration theory as it gives more factors to explain the reasons for relationship breakdown.

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Duck (1999) - Lack of skills

Ducks first reason is Lack of Skills, which refers to the idea that some people lack the interpersonal skills required to keep a relationship going. This however suggests that some people are just not suited to a long term relationship and could therefore never keep a relationship going due to a fundamental lack of skills.

(-) This however seems like a very large overgeneralisation as many relationships are between two very different individuals with different skills and levels of social prowess.

(+) This idea can be supported by Argyle and Henderson’s research into friendship ‘rules’, as participants believed that their relationships had ended sue to the breaking of a relationship ‘rule’ such as jealousy or public criticism. This links to the idea that some individuals may not have the skills to maintain a relationship without breaking one of these ‘rules’ leading to the end of the relationship.

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Duck (1999) - Lack of Stimulation

Ducks second reason is Lack of Stimulation which states that relationships that are not stimulating enough in terms of becoming costly and boring to one or both of the individuals. However this idea has been criticised as some people will often stay in relationships which are costly and give little reward, such as abusive relationships where there is a fear of leaving the other person or if there are assets that both partners share such as children or finances, this may lead to a relationship lasting even though it is not very stimulating for one or both of the partners.

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Duck (1999) - Lack of Contact

Ducks final reason for relationship breakdown is lack of contact, which states that some relationships fail because partners cannot maintain close/regular contact. This links with the idea of proximity being a key factor in the formation of relationships also, as researched by Zajonc.

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Hays and Oxley (1986)

This idea can also be supported by research done by Hays and Oxley in 1986, they stated that new situations means new people and that these people may then offer more rewarding relationships than those an individual currently has. The found that most first year university students classed their close friends to be fellow students and not old school or neighbourhood friends.

(+) This supports the idea of those old relationships failing due to a lack of contact, and being replaced by those that have a larger amount of current contact. This study also supports the idea of Lack of stimulation, as it shows that relationships with more contact and stimulation are replacing old relationships which are not as stimulating as the new ones that the university students have found.

(-) This study can however be criticised due to its unscientific nature as the term ‘close friend’ cannot be operationalised and therefore each participant may have thought of the distinction between a friend and a ‘close’ friend differently.

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Lee’s Stage model

These two theories look at why relationships break down, however there is also the idea of how dissolution happens and for this there are two main theories. Firstly, there is Lee’s Stage model which looks at the breakdown of a relationship in stages. The first of these is Dissatisfaction, which is where one or both of the partners realises that there are real problems within the relationship. This is then dealt with ‘Exposure’ which is when the problems within the relationship are brought into the open and discussed. This then leads to ‘Negotiation’ when there is much discussion about the issues raised during the exposure stage. Lee then suggest that this leads to ‘Resolution Attempts’ as Both partners try to find ways of solving the problems discussed in the negotiation stage. This however must fail as the next and last stage of this model is’ Termination’, when the relationship fails and the two partners separate.

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Lee's Research

This study is based upon the research that Lee himself conducted with a survey of 112 couples that were experiencing pre-marital breakdown.

(-) This research however has been criticised, firstly for its small sample size which cannot explain why all relationships breakdown, or the reasons for relationship breakdown in other cultures than just the western society.

(-) This studies sample also meets criticism over the fact that it consisted of only pre-marital couples, which therefore means it cannot be generalised to the more complicated married couples who would have to consider the implications of getting a divorce and the effect this would have on the dissolution of a relationship.

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Lee's Critisms

(-) Aside from the research the overall theory can also be criticised due to its mechanistic nature which creates a very rigid set of stages that all relationships must go through, which fails to account for individual differences.

(-) Along with this, the theory along with the research as previously states suffers by being ethnocentric, as it only seems to account for the western cultures relationships and does not apply well to arranged or bigamous marriages.

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Ducks Phase Model

The other main theory of how relationships breakdown is Ducks Phase Model which he designed after contributing his 3 reasons as to why relationship dissolve. This model consists of 6 phases that can be moved through either way due to the implementation of repair strategies or then by bypassing the threshold of one phases, the individual moves on to the following phase. This free movement between phases would keep a relationship going much longer then Lee’s stages suggest.

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Ducks Phase Model - 1-2

The first of these phases is the Breakdown stage where one or both of the partners notice dissatisfaction with the relationship, this is then moved on to the Intrapsychic phases when the individual with think about these feeling of dissatisfaction in private or then with a close friend.

At this point the individual may go through the repair strategy of this phases, which would be if the individual re-established a liking for the partner due to their deeper thoughts on the issue or by the conversation with their close friend. However if the repair strategy is not used the individual may then reach this phases threshold of “I’d be justified in withdrawing” which would lead them into the 3rd phase.

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Ducks Phase Model - 3+

This third phases being the ‘Dyadic’ phases where the individual either decides to break up or to repair the relationship, the fourth phases ‘Social’ then moves this outwards from the individual as they include others in their argument and look for the sides they take. At this point the repair strategy is based on outside factors, as if others encourage the reunion then the individual will go back through the phases. However if the public agree with the dissatisfied individual, they are likely to reach and then surpass the threshold of this phases which is “It’s now inevitable” in reference to the dissolution of the relationship.

This then leads to the last two phases of ‘Grave dressing’ where there is a public and private dissection of the relationship and the partners try to make the breakup “prettier” than it actually was in reality. The last phase is then ‘Resurrection’ where the partners look at what they have learnt from this relationship and they both try to re-establish their own individual sense of identity and self-esteem.

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Grey and Silver

There is also support for this Phase Model, for example Grey and Silver surveyed 45 couples who had been married for an average of 10 years, but had now filed for a divorce. Both men and women were found to equally protect their self-esteem by providing their own perceived version of events of the breakup which put them in a favourable light. This supports the idea of ‘Grave Dressing’ as a Phase.

(-) However this study has been criticised due to its small sample size, making it hard to apply the study to other ethnicities or cultures, as well as the fact that it cannot be generalised to short term couples who are not married.

(-) Ducks model has also faced criticism as it makes no account of why the dissatisfaction has arisen in the first place, however the model does look at the dissolution of a relationship as a process, not just an event which therefore must go through a number of ‘phases’.

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To conclude, the two models of ‘How’ relationships breakdown, Lee’s Stage model and Duck’s Phase Model, both have some similar stages and ideas, for example the Dissatisfaction and Breakdown stages both recognise that one or both of the partners must notice or feel a sense of dissatisfaction with their current relationship. However Ducks model has much more detail, as well as integrating repair strategies and thresholds that Lee’s model lacks. This gives Duck’s model a more comprehensive feel as it appeals more to the individualist basis of relationships.

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