Ducks Phase Model of Relationship Breakdown

Duck (2001) proposed three general reasons for why relationships break up:

  1. Pre-existing doom – incompatibility and failure are fairly much guaranteed from the start of the relationship
  2. Mechanical failure- two compatible, well meaning people grow apart and find that they cannot live together any longer (this is the most common cause)
  3. Sudden death -the discovery of infidelity (cheating) or the occurrence of a traumatic incident (such as a huge argument) leads to immediate ending of a relationship.

Duck proposed several other factors as contributing to relationship dissolution:

  • Predisposing personal factors – for example, individual’s bad habits or emotional instabilities
  • Precipitating factors – for example, exterior influences, such as love rivals, process features, such as incompatible working hours, emergent properties, such as lack of relationship direction, and attributions of blame, such as perceiving that someone else is to blame
  • Lack of skills – for example, being sexually inexperienced
  • Lack of motivation – for example, perceiving inequity
  • Lack of maintenance – for example, spending too much time apart

Duck believed that the ‘official’ reasons to given to others, including partners to justify breaking up are more interesting psychologically than the real reasons. The psychology of break up involves many individual psychological processes, group processes, cultural rules and self-presentation to other.

As Duck (2001) said:

‘Truly committed romantic relationships involve the foregoing of other romantic relationships and commitment to only one partner……So, the ending of a romantic relationship indicates two people are now legitimately available as partners for other relationships. This requires them to create a story for the end of the relationship that leaves them in a favorable light as potential partners. Romantic relationships are, therefore, typically ended publicly in a way that announces the ex partners freedom from the expectations of exclusive commitment.’

Duck (1982) sees dissolution as a personal process, but one where partners regard how things will look to friends and social networks. Duck therefore suggested an amount of dissolution involving four sequential phases. This explanation begins where one partner is sufficiently dissatisfied with the relationship over a long enough period of time to consider ending it.

The four phases are:

  1. Intrapsychic – one partner privately perceives dissatisfaction with the relationship
  2. Dyadic – the dissatisfaction is discussed. If it is not resolved, there is a move to the next stage.
  3. Social – the breakdown is made public. There is negotiation about children, finances and so on, with wider families and friends becoming involved.
  4. Grave dressing – a post relationship view of the break up is established, protecting self-esteem and rebuilding life towards new relationships.

The thresholds (precipitating factors) and phases are shown in Table 3.3.

Threshold Phase Characteristic behaviours
‘ I can’t stand this anymore’ Intrapsychic phase ·         Personal focus on partners behaviour

·         Assess adequacy of partners role performance

·         Depict and evaluate negative aspects of being in the relationship

·         Consider costs of withdrawal

·         Assess positive aspects of alternative relationships

·         Face ‘express/ repress dilemma’ – whether you should express your dissatisfaction or keep it to yourself

‘I’d be justified in withdrawing’ Dyadic phase ·         Face up to ‘confrontation/ avoidance dilemma’

·         Confront partner

·         Negotiation through ‘our relationship’ talks

·         Attempt repair and reconciliation?

·         Assess joint costs of withdrawal or reduced intimacy

‘I mean it’ Social phase ·         Negotiate post-dissolution state with partner

·         Initiate gossip/ discussion in social network

·         Create publicly negotiable face-saving /blame -placing stories and accounts

·         Consider and face up to implied social network effect

‘It’s now inevitable’ Grave- dressing phase ·         Perform ‘getting over it ‘activities

·         Retrospective, reformative post-mortem attribution

·         Publicly distribute own version of break-up


Kassin (1996) found that women are more likely to stress unhappiness and incompatibility as reasons for dissolution, while men blame lack of sex. Women wish to remain friends, while males want a clean break, suggesting gender differences that Duck’s model does not consider.

Akert (1992) found that the person who instigated the break up suffers fewer negative consequences than the non-instigator, suggesting individual differences in the effects of dissolution that the model does not explain.

Argyle (1988) found that women identified lack of emotional support as a reason for dissolution, while men cited absence of fun, again suggesting gender differences that the model does not explain.


The theory has face validity as it is an account of relationship breakdown that most people can relate to their own and/or others experience.

The theory does not take into account why dissatisfaction occurred in the first place; its starting point is where dissatisfaction has already set in. Therefore, it fails to provide a complete picture of dissolution.

The model does not usually apply to homosexual relationship which may not involve some of the decisions over children that heterosexuals have to consider. Additionally, it does not apply to heterosexual couples who decide not to have children.

The model is simplistic as it does not account for relationships such as casual affairs and friendships.