How Loving Couples Drift Apart and Eventually Break Up

“What happened? You two were perfect together!” –

“I don’t know, we just drifted apart.”

Ever wondered what this really means? How do couples who were once so high up on the magical cloud of love tragically come apart? I can answer you this straight from the handbook. Coming apart in a relationship is actually a five stage interaction process. If you study these stages and notice them as they happen, you can avoid this ever happening in your own relationship.


Stage one: Differentiating

This is when differences between the couple become an issue. At the beginning of the relationship, the differences were set aside and they focused on what they had in common with many “Oh, you love raisins? I love raisins too!” kind of moments. What does it matter if he is a smoker or if she spends all her time with her friends? You have so many other things in common, right? In this stage of coming apart, the couple discovers how different they really are. What causes these differences? Differences can be about anything that is significant to the individuals involved, like attitudes, interests, personality, relatives, or friends. It can even be about specific behaviour like emotional needs or a habit that is horribly irritating. What you should look out for in this stage is conflict which is expressed verbally, with “Love me as I am or leave me” as the conclusion.


Stage two: Circumscribing

In relationships that are coming apart, communication between the individuals decreases in quality and quantity, or is circumscribed. This is when you only talk about “safe” things that won’t result in a fight. The communication between the couple becomes superficial because the number of “touchy” topics increases. Eventually, almost anything one partner says will be taken up negatively by the other. You will also talk less about how committed you are to each other and how good the relationship is. Typical phrases at this stage are “Can we talk about something else?” or “Leave my father out of this” or “This has nothing to do with you”. At this stage, communication will pick up if the couple is out in public as they do not want others to see that the relationship is coming apart.


Stage three: Stagnating

In this stage the individuals in the relationship will often think of the conversation within themselves instead of talking to each other. Since they “know” how the conversation will go, why should they even try talking about it? “If I say this, she’ll say that” and so on. This stage has nonverbal behaviour, like body language, that emphasise the unhappiness better than words ever could. Extended stagnating means that very little conversation is happening.


Stage four: Avoiding

This is when one or both members of the couple no longer wish to engage in face-to-face or voice-to-voice interaction. At this stage, breaking up would be desirable. When the couple communicates in this stage the messages probably contain overtones of unfriendliness like “Please don’t call me again”. A more subtle version of this stage, however, is to be constantly late for or cancelling dates, saying “I can’t see you on that day because…I can’t see you on that day either because…”. When it is not possible for the couple to be physically separated, they will simply ignore each other. They share the same place but only talk when necessary.


Stage five: Terminating

This is when the couple breaks up because they have grown too far apart to repair the relationship and they don’t even want to try to repair it, either. Dissociative messages prepare the couple for the break up by emphasising differences and only thinking about their own interests and not of their partner’s. The break up conversation often includes messages of how the future (if any) for the relationship is going to be like, for example “Perhaps we can meet for coffee sometime” or “I never want to see you again”.

No single module or action can define an entire relationship. Some people will stay in unhappy relationships because of fear or because they want to punish the other person by staying with them. Look out for these stages in your own relationship and fix them as soon as possible, and maybe you can have a happy ending (here’s hoping no one cheats).

Source: Sheila Steinberg, An Introduction to Communication Studies (2006), page 167-168

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