Approximately 50 percent of first-time marriages, and an even higher percentage of remarriages, end in separation or divorce. Because researchers and theorists are concerned with the prevalence of relational termination, they have devoted a great deal of effort to understanding the antecedents, processes, and consequences associated with divorce and the dissolution of romantic relationships.
A number of the characteristics that people bring to marriage are associated with the likelihood that they will divorce. For instance, socio-demographic variables such as age and income predict the early termination of marriages. The divorce rate is particularly high for those who marry in their teens as it is for people in lower income groups, those with low-status occupations, and those with less education (Kitson et al. 1985). Relatively stable personality variables, such as neuroticism, also have been linked to the dissolution of marriage (Kelly & Conley 1987).
In addition to the characteristics that people bring to their romantic relationships, the way partners interact with each other predicts relational dissolution (Vangelisti 2002). Individuals who are dissatisfied with their relationship display more negative affect and less positive affect when communicating with their partner than do those who are satisfied, and the expression of negative affect predicts declines in marital satisfaction over time. Further, there are two sequences of behavior that distinguish happy from unhappy couples. The first involves the reciprocation of negative affect. People who tend to respond to their partner’s negative behavior with negative behavior are less satisfied than those who do not. The second involves one partner communicating in “demanding” ways (e.g., trying to engage the other) while the other withdraws (e.g., tries to avoid the issue at hand). Labeled the demand–withdraw pattern, this behavioral sequence has been consistently associated with marital dissatisfaction and divorce.
Because marital and other romantic relationships take place in the context of social networks, family and friends also influence relational stability. Generally, perceptions of approval from a partner’s network and network support are positively linked to relational stability, as is the amount of overlap between partners’ social networks (Sprecher et al. 2006).
The termination of marital and other romantic relationships occurs over time and involves interaction between relational partners. In other words, it is a process rather than an event. A number of researchers have put forth models describing the stages that couples go through when their relationships come apart (e.g., Knapp 1978). The models are similar in several ways. For instance, most note that the dissolution of romantic relationships starts when one or both partners recognize there is a problem and begin to evaluate the relationship. Next, the models suggest that partners discuss their relational problems. These discussions may be direct or indirect and may involve efforts to repair the relationship. The models also indicate that people go to their social network to talk about their relationship, seek advice, or provide an account of why their relationship is ending. Finally, most of the models suggest that after the relationship ends, partners engage in behaviors that help them recover from the dissolution. While some of the models describe the termination process as a series of steps, all of them acknowledge that relational partners may progress through the steps at different rates and in different sequences and that partners may even skip some steps.
Rather than describe the dissolution process itself, some researchers have focused specifically on the tactics that people use to end their relationships. For instance, Cody (1982) found that people who initiated a breakup with a romantic partner tended to use one of several strategies including: (1) positive tone (apologizing, trying not to hurt the partner); (2) negative identity management (noting the importance of dating other people); (3) justification (explaining the reason for the breakup); (4) behavioral de-escalation (avoiding contact); and (5) de-escalation (saying that partners should “cool off” for a period of time).
Relationship dissolution is stressful for most people. Individuals who are divorced report lower levels of well-being, more health problems, more loneliness and social isolation, and more economic difficulties than do those who are married. Longitudinal studies indicate that divorce causes psychological distress; however, there also is evidence suggesting that people have certain individual differences that make them vulnerable to divorce (Mastekaasa 1994). Moreover, a small number of studies show that divorce can be linked to positive outcomes such as personal growth and autonomy (Marks 1996).
Like adults, children typically find divorce stressful: Children whose parents have divorced tend to have poorer psychological adjustment, lower academic achievement, and more behavioral problems than do those whose parents have not divorced (Hetherington et al. 1985). It is worth noting, though, that the differences between children with divorced parents and those with continually married parents are relatively small. In addition, children’s adjustment to divorce is influenced by social and economic resources (Amato 1993). There is strong evidence that the conflict associated with divorce, rather than the divorce itself, accounts for the lower well-being of children from divorced families. Further, children whose parents have economic difficulties after divorce appear to be more negatively influenced than those whose parents do not experience such difficulties.
Although the prevalence of relational termination has stimulated a great deal of study, researchers’ understanding of divorce and relational dissolution is still fragmented. Most studies focus on direct associations between predictors and outcomes when, in reality, many of these associations may be mediated by other factors. Also, much of the literature is based on the assumption that characteristics that occur early in relationships determine relationship outcomes. Because the process of relational termination likely is non-linear and is influenced at different points in time by different variables, understanding the process will require longitudinal studies that examine relationship variables at multiple points in time.
- Amato, P. R. (1993). Children’s adjustment to divorce: Theories, hypotheses, and empirical support. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 55, 23–38.
- Cody, M. J. (1982). A typology of disengagement strategies and an examination of the role intimacy, reactions to inequity, and relational problems play in strategy selection. Communication Monographs, 49, 148–170.
- Hetherington, E. M., Cox, M., & Cox, R. (1985). Long-term effects of divorce and remarriage on the adjustment of children. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry, 24, 518–530.
- Kelly, E. L., & Conley, J. J. (1987). Personality and compatibility: A prospective analysis of marital stability and marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 27–40.
- Kitson, G. C., Barbi, K. B., & Roach, M. J. (1985). Who divorces and why? A review. Journal of Family Issues, 6, 255–293.
- Knapp, M. L. (1978). Social intercourse: From greeting to goodbye. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
- Marks, N. F. (1996). Flying solo at midlife: Gender, marital status, and psychological well-being. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58, 917–932.
- Mastekaasa, A. (1994). Psychological well-being and marital dissolution. Journal of Family Issues, 15, 208–228.
- Sprecher, S., Felmlee, D., Schmeeckle, M., & Shu, X. (2006). No breakup occurs on an island: Social networks and relationship dissolution. In M. A. Fine & J. H. Harvey (eds.), Handbook of divorce and relationship dissolution. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 457–478.
- Vangelisti, A. L. (2002). Interpersonal processes in romantic relationships. In M. L. Knapp & J. A. Daly (eds.), Handbook of interpersonal communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 643–679.