Why relationships end

In spite of everyone’s best intentions, relationships do not always survive the many changes that they experience over time. There are a number of trends, however, which have been noted by researchers.

Relationships offer comfortable predictability. Crisis occurs when this predictability is disrupted. This could be the result of having a child, moving to a new city, or “breaking the rules”. Relationships work based on rules or “agreements” between partners. These rules function to minimize the potential for conflict. Some rules that are typical in relationships are respecting your partner’s privacy, not talking to others about what has been self-disclosed, and being emotionally supportive. Deception is perhaps the most important rule that should not be broken.  When these rules are violated, relationships usually change in a negative way.

Some psychologists have taken a rather economic approach to relationships. Social exchange theory (Kelley and Thibaut 1959) argues that relationships are maintained through a cost–benefit analysis. In other words, the costs of the relationship must not outweigh the benefits. The more one "invests" in a relationship, the more one expects “greater returns”. A relationship will endure only as long as it is profitable to both partners. Although a lack of balance in a relationship may be tolerated in the short-term, the balance must be restored if the relationship is to survive.

American psychologist Elaine Walster argues that social exchange theory is too simplistic an explanation, and that there is no reliable way of determining costs and benefits. She argues instead that the perception of equality (or equity) is what determines whether a relationship will be maintained.

Equity theory has been used to explain infidelity. For example, a woman feels that she is putting more into the relationship than her husband. Although she loves him, he is currently not making a good salary, he is not doing his share of the housework, and he has not been showing her enough affection. In cheating on her husband, she feels guilty and that she now “owes” him her loyalty, thus rebalancing the sense of equity. In a study of 2000 couples, Hatfield et al (1979) found that those who felt deprived or under-benefited had extramarital sex sooner after marriage and with more partners than those who felt either fairly treated or over-benefited. Those who felt that their relationship was perfectly equitable were more likely than others to think that they would still be together in one year and in five years. Those who felt greatly under-benefited and those who felt greatly over-benefited were least likely to think that their relationship would be intact in the future. What is most interesting is that the over-benefited were just as doubtful about future prospects as were the under-benefited.

In spite of the empirical support, exchange theories are criticized for being too “cold,” and for failing to take into account emotions that could override “profit motive.” The theory may also lack cross-cultural validity – with such behaviour being more likely in an individualistic culture than a collectivistic one. Finally, it is difficult to quantify costs and rewards in order to test the theory rigorously.

ATL: Thinking critically

It is estimated that roughly 30% to 60% of all married individuals in the United States will engage in infidelity - that is, cheating on one's partner - at some point during their marriage. 

The argument that people cheat on a spouse in order to restore "balance" in the relationship is a rather "economic" way to think about a relationship.  What would the other approaches say about the reason people "cheat?"

Evolutionary psychologists like Buss & Shackelford (1997) argue that cheating has a much more biological origin.  They argue that men have a drive to procreate - and since they can do so rather easily, the more mates that they have, the more successful they will be.  For women, however, they have only one egg a month, so they have to be much more picky about whom they choose for their mate. 

For each of the following statistics, do you think that they support the equity theory or the evolutionary theory?  If you don't think that a statistic supports either theory, propose an altnerative theory as to why these statistics might be true.

  • Infidelity is more common among people under 30.
  • Men are more likely to cheat than women. But as women become more financially independent, they are beginning to act more like men with respect to infidelity.
  • The initial decision to be unfaithful is rarely if ever a rational choice; instead, infidelity is usually driven by circumstances and one’s emotions
  • Women tend to leave their husbands if he has sexual relations with another woman; men are more likely to leave a relationship if their wife falls in love with another man.

Research in psychology: Flora and Segrin (2003)

Flora & Segrin wanted to test the role of the following variables in the well being of a relationship:

  • Common interests
  • The desire to spend time together
  • Negative feelings toward the partner

The sample consisted of 66 young couples who had dated for at least six months, and 65 young couples who had been married for around four years. It was a longitudinal study, using self-reported data based on questionnaires and interviews.  They interviewed 262 participants about the emotional aspects of their relationship - for example, the degree of positive and negative feelings, contentment or disappointment with their partner.

The researchers found that the most important factor for what attracted the participants to their partners was the common interests and activities, as well as a desire to spend time together. This was particularly true for men, and, overall, it was more important than the degree of negative and positive feelings.

After one year, the couples were contacted again. None of the married couples had separated, but a quarter of the lovers had split up. Those who were still together were asked to fill out a new questionnaire to get an idea of their satisfaction with the relationship, as well as their personal well-being.

The researchers found a positive correlation between common interests, activities, and desire to spend time together in males.  For the women, there was also positive correlation between common interests, activities, and desire to spend time together, but the most important factor in predicting satisfaction was the frequency of their own negative feelings they had felt at the beginning of the study.  The more negative feelings, the less satisfied they were a year later.

The research indicates that there may be a gender difference in men’s and women’s ideas of what constitutes a good relationship. Men seem to favour common interests and a desire to be together. For women, satisfaction with the relationship was to a large extent dependent on the degree of their own negative feelings about their partner.

Some theories are more explanatory than predictive. Felmlee (1995) proposed her Fatal Attraction Theory in which she argues that what attracted us to our partner in the first place may end up being the reason that the relationship ends.

Her sample was made up of 301 university students - both male and feel - who were asked to think about their most recent romantic relationship that had ended.  They were asked to list the qualities that had attracted them to their former partner.  Then they were asked which qualities in their partner led to the break-up. She found that in 88/301 cases, what had been once seen as an attractive trait ended up being the reason for the split.  She found three common fatal attraction patterns:

1. Fun to foolish. This was the most common fatal attraction process. In this case, the partner was initially seen to have an amazing sense of humour and fun to be with. He made you forget all of your cares and worries.  But then over time, if this remains a predominant part of their behaviour, it can be seen that the person lacks maturity or "can't take anything seriously."   It may also be seen that humour is used to avoid solving problems in the relationship or, in the worst case, is used as a way to humiliate one's partner.

2. Strong to domineering. In this case, people are drawn to partners who show self-confidence and have strong opinions about life. They are seen as leaders and people who "know what they want in life." Later, however, the partner may be seen as uncompromising and authoritarian. In the worst cases, the partner may be abusive.

3. Spontaneous to unpredictable. This is when we are attracted to someone who lives in the moment.  They are not bound by lots of plans and are able to go with the flow.  There is excitement in their spontaneity and lack of predictability.  Over time, this may be seen as a lack of seriousness.  There may also be frustration as a result of a lack of planning. In the worst case scenario, this leads to cheating on the spouse and a lack of commitment.

Why relationships end: communication

As we saw in the previous section, communication plays a key role in relationships; therefore, it should be no surprise that a negative communication style would lead to the break-up of a relationship.

Psychologist John Gottman has proposed that there are four communication styles that threaten a relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. He calls these four communication styles the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – a reference to the Biblical story about the end of the world.

CriticismAttacking your partner's character, usually to show that you are right."You always...", "You never learn", "Why are you so..."
ContemptAttacking your partner's character with insult or abuse.  Seeing your partner as inferior.Sneering, eye-rolling.  Using words like "ugly, fat, lazy."  Making jokes about your partner that humiliate or mock.
DefensivenessArguing against the concerns of your partner; seeing yourself as the victim."But you also do that.  Don't blame me."  "That's not true, you're the one..."  "It's not my fault."
StonewallingWithdrawing from the relationship to avoid conflict.Silent treatment, changing the subject, physically leaving a conversation.

Gottman’s (1994) research has been carried out primarily by observing and interviewing couples in his laboratory. He observed couples having a low-conflict conversation and then a high-conflict conversation. He measured physiological factors like their heart-rate, blood pressure and skin galvinization. He argues that he can predict the likelihood that a marriage will survive by watching communication patterns between two people. He has studied by heterosexual and same-sex couples. According to Gottman, part of communication is our use of micro-expressions. For example, when we feel contempt or disgust for someone, our face shows it. However, according to his research, it is primarily our state of arousal that occurs during conflict – when our heartbeat exceeds 100 beats per minute – and our oral communication which is predictive of a failing relationship.

Although Gottman’s research is very popular, there are some concerns about his work.  First, his claim that he can predict the likelihood of divorce is rather problematic.  Although it may appear that his work has high predictive validity, the sampling is not random. Instead, the sample is made up of couples who are coming to him in order to save their marriage in other words, all of the relationships are already in danger of ending and usually, the problems in the marriage have been long-term.  According to Gottman, the average time that a couple waits to receive counseling is six years.  However, the documentation of patterns that lead to the end of a relationship is significant and there needs to be more research to determine its true predictive validity.

What is galvanic skin response?

GSR is a change in the electrical properties of the skin. Fear, anger, startle response, orienting response and sexual feelings are all among the emotions which may produce similar GSR responses.  For example, when we fear something, we begin to sweat.  Sweat contains water and electrolytes which increase electrical conductivity, thus lowering the electrical resistance of the skin. These changes will in turn affect the GSR.

Methodological considerations

There are several methodological considerations when we study human relationships.  One of the most basic issues in the research is that it is very difficult – and often unethical – to carry out experimental research on couples.  Therefore, the majority of research carried out in this chapter is correlational in nature – not establishing a cause and effect relationship.  In cases where experiments are actually done, many use “hypothetical” situations.  Although the presence of consistent results is promising, the predictive validity of the research has to be questioned – is this really what would happen in a real, rather than a hypothetical, situation?

Another concern is sampling bias.  The majority of the studies come from three populations.  First, a large number of studies use university students as their sample.  This makes it difficult to generalize the findings to other age groups.  Secondly, as noted above, the majority of the research has been carried out in individualistic cultures.  This means that many of the studies may lack cross-cultural validity.  Finally, a significant number of studies look at couples who have sought out therapy to save a failing marriage.  This also will bias the sample, not looking at couples who struggle in marriage but do not seek counseling.

Although some of the studies are prospective in nature – that is, the couples are evaluated at the beginning of their relationship and then observed over time – the vast majority of the studies are retrospective in nature. In this case, couples are asked to talk about their relationship or marriage.  There are some limitations of this approach.  First, it is often impossible to verify that what the participants say is accurate. Secondly, whenever we are asked to remember something, there is the possibility of memory distortion. In particular, in cases where the relationship is in danger, the peak-end rule may influence perception – that is, the participants will tend to remember examples of very bad events in their relationship (peak) and the most recent behaviour (end), which tends to be negative. Finally, since the data is self-reported, there is the problem of demand characteristics such as the social desirability effect. Participants may say what they feel is “correct” or that makes them look good in front of the researcher.

Ethical considerations

When studying relationships, there are also several ethical considerations that must be addressed.

Informed consent is essential in all research. When couples come in for therapy, if the therapist wishes to use their data in a study, then consent must be given.  It is also important that both members of the relationship give their consent.  The couple should know how the data will be used and that their identities will remain confidential. As part of the consent, the couple should be reminded that they may withdraw their data at any time in the study. Finally, it is important that while carrying out research, the researcher should not pressure participants to answer embarrassing or painful questions.  The participant always has the right to refuse to answer a question.

Checking for understanding

Social exchange theory is the idea that a healthy relationship


Which of the following is not a limitation of Hatfield et al (1979) study of equity theory and relationships?



Evolutionary psychologists argue that people cheat in relationships because …



How would you describe the study by Flora & Segrin (2003)?

The study made us of both interviews and surveys and was carried out over time.  Method triangulation is a definitive characteristic of the case study method.


In Felmlee’s research on Fatal Attraction Theory she carried out interviews and questionnaires to see if there was support for her theory?  What is a potential limitation of this research?

Felmlee carried out a content analysis of the interviews and surveys in order to see if there were any trends that were similar to her theory.  This means that she may have "found what she was looking for" in order to support her hypothesis.  Ideally, she would use researcher triangulation in order to minimize this problem.


Which of the following is not one of Gottman’s four horses of the apocalypse?

The term used for the silent treatment is "stonewalling."


Which of the following is true of Gottman’s research on the role of emotional expression in relationships?


One of the problems with Gottman’s research is that it only uses couples who are seeking therapy as a last resort to save their marriage.  This is an example of what research problem?

Ascertainment bias is when the selection of the sample skews my results by eliminating the more general population.  In this case, people who may have poor communication styles but are not seeking out therapy.


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Group dynamics

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