Some say goodbye with regret, others with a court summons. Whether it is done with tears or sangfroid, breaking up with a lover can be one of life’s most devastating experiences. Though we think of each estrangement, in our pain, as unique, dispassionate reflection says it is not. According to Diane Vaughan, 48, author of Uncoupling: Turning Points in Intimate Relationships (Oxford University Press, $15.95), there is a pattern to the breakup of all relationships, whether the couple is straight or gay, married or cohabiting. “Uncoupling,” says Vaughan, “involves a regular, orderly and predictable process that can help us understand past events and indicate where we might intervene in the present. “An assistant professor of sociology at Boston College and the divorced mother of three grown children, Vaughan discussed her observations with correspondent Maria Wilhelm.
What prompted your research into uncoupling?
Ten years ago my marriage dissolved after 20 years, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what happened. Though the actual breakup was emotionally chaotic, in retrospect I realized that the relationship had been unraveling for some time. After interviewing other people who had been through a similar experience, one thing became clear. We don’t always pay a lot of attention to our relationships, and hence we don’t recognize the warning signs of trouble until it’s too late.
Why do you call the breaking-up process uncoupling?
Most people usually think of breaking up in terms of the immediate emotional crisis and subsequent physical separation. But when people become a couple, they rearrange their entire social world. They create “our friends” instead of “my friends” and “your friends.” Uncoupling is a gradual reversal of that process, and it follows a predictable pattern that is set in motion long before a couple actually separate.
How does uncoupling begin?
Keeping secrets is the first stage. When you fall in love, you pay attention to every word, to every expression, to everything your partner is doing. But as a relationship ages, communication reverts to shorthand. When feelings of unhappiness creep into the picture, they may remain largely unspoken because of ambivalence or fear. Instead the person who is dissatisfied—the initiator—begins to display discontent through cues and hints, such as a disgruntled glance, a goodnight kiss omitted, an activity that conflicts with a time understood to be “our time.” If the unhappiness surfaces in words, the complaints are intermittent and mundane: “You embarrass me when you laugh so loud.” Or: “I wish you would get home for dinner in time to eat with the children.” Meanwhile the other partner may not even suspect anything serious is wrong.
Does such sniping necessarily signal the end of a relationship?
Not always. In fact it is often a halfhearted attempt to keep things from going on the rocks. But rather than confronting problems in the relationship directly, the initiator may eventually look elsewhere for consolation. At first that could mean spending more time at work, or devoting a lot of energy to a personal hobby. Ultimately it means finding a confidant. Some people bare their souls to new lovers. Others seek solace from parents, siblings or friends.
When does the brooding end and direct confrontation begin?
Unfortunately that usually doesn’t occur until any attempt at reconciliation is doomed to failure. By that time the initiator has found a separate social niche, and the burden of saving the relationship falls on the partner. While the initiator is busy enumerating the negative qualities of the relationship, the partner will focus on the positive. The partner may try to be more lovable, for example, by losing weight or showing greater interest in the other person’s work. But it is hard to be yourself when you know you may lose your relationship if your performance isn’t up to snuff. Regardless of sex, it’s clear that the person being left behind is the one who is less prepared for the breakup.
Isn’t it often the partner who forces a breakup?
Yes. Unintentionally, the initiator often puts the burden of confrontation on the partner. Direct confrontation can be very painful, so most people try to avoid it. Instead, the initiator may indirectly force a reaction. One man said to me, “I didn’t know how to get out, so I stayed in the relationship but would have nothing to do with [my wife]. I didn’t talk to her. I slept on the sofa. Finally she threw me out.” When any relationship reaches that stage, both partners are confused and hurting.
Is a period of separation beneficial to a troubled relationship?
There may come a point when people are so bitter and angry that separation seems the only alternative. But once people are in separate locations, it may prove harder for them to get together again. There is less to talk about; they have less in common. And when the unhappy situation becomes public, their friends tend to react in ways that will divide the couple even further. In an effort to be helpful, they’ll say things like “You’re better off without her.”
How do some couples reconcile?
Reconciliation can happen in a number of ways. Sometimes the initiator, once out of the relationship, finds the world outside isn’t so great and has a change of heart. Sometimes the other partner develops new interests or gets a new job and becomes attractive to the initiator again. The initiator may say, “I’ve made a terrible mistake. Let’s try again.” Of course by then the response might well be “No.”
What kinds of relationships thrive?
Every relationship has its own rhythm. Some work because the partners are highly interdependent and do everything together. Others would flounder with constant contact. There is no best kind of relationship.
Do married couples stand a better chance of success than those who just live together?
Society supports the married couple. For people who choose other kinds of relationships and violate traditional expectations in the process, it can be much more difficult. Friends or members of an extended family may not view people living together out of wedlock as having the same bond as a married couple.
What about gay couples? Don’t they receive even less encouragement?
Gays, especially, may have their parents rooting for them to separate. One common misconception is that gays break up more often because they are more promiscuous and less committed to one another. The real problem is that gay couples simply don’t have enough social support to sustain their relationships.
Given the countless pitfalls in any relationship, what works to keep people together?
In a good relationship, negotiation and direct confrontation go on all the time. Whenever one person in a relationship is experiencing some kind of transition—a job change, an illness, a disappointment at work, a death in the family—there is potential stress on the couple. The key is to listen to each other and pay attention to each other’s needs, despite any outside distractions. When it comes to the person you love, nothing should be taken for granted.