The million dollar question.

Relationship breakdowns are often more of a process, rather than a one off single decision or event, and you’ve likely tried your hardest over a sustained length of time to try and make it work, drawing extensively on the good times that you have stashed away in your memory bank to keep you afloat, perhaps living in hope that one day those times may come back.

But what if those good times are now firmly in the past?

What if creating future good times with the person you share the most intimate parts of your life with now feel wholly unobtainable?

And what if the bad times seriously now outweigh the good?

How do you know if it’s time to let go? 

Whilst there are no rules to a breakup, psychologists have over time attempted to explain the stages of dissolution when it comes to relationships – social Psychologist Steve Duck (1982) came up with a detailed model or process which he termed ‘the relationship dissolution model’ with four distinct phases:

Stage 1

Duck describes the first stage as a period of inward thought, focusing on the behaviour of your partner, assessing the negative and positive features of your relationship and considering what withdrawal might look like, and it might lead to you expressing your thoughts and concerns to a third party. 

One of the biggest clues is your future view. If ‘destination new life’ (without your partner) is the place you escape to in your head, and you are already hypothetically exit planning in your mind, it’s a sign that you are considering that your future might rest on uncoupling.

Stage 2

The second phase leads to deciding that action needs to be taken. That might look like attempting repair or reconciliation, reduced intimacy, or attributing responsibility for what is going wrong. 

It’s at this stage that you might feel that you are beyond trying, and therefore a distinct lack of enthusiasm and commitment to keep trying. Sometimes rather than taking action, we passively allow that deterioration to continue, in the hope that ‘something – anything’’ eventually becomes the action that we are ourselves scared of taking. 

And you might find yourself increasingly wanting to do things you once enjoyed doing together – on your own, or you resent spending time together because it’s hard work, too much effort, or full of conflict and put downs. When your partnership no longer feels like ‘team us’ and your communication is surface level and reserved to fair weather topics only it can feel like a lonely place to be, and this might be the stage that you start investing more in others, and intimacy seeking elsewhere. 

Stage 3 

The third phase involves a new element in saying that the relationship is near an end, with both partners negotiating with friends for both support and reassurance creating publicly negotiable face saving and blame placing stories. Individual social networks will take sides and pronounce guilt and blame, effectively sanctioning the dissolution. 

When we can no longer see how our relationship will improve, or we wait for improvements and see no change, we lose hope, and hope is the magic that keeps us trying. If you have an expectation, or have come to an acceptance that your relationship is beyond hope you might find yourself sharing that with friends and family and verbalizing that to your partner. 

Stage 4

Duck describes the final phase as involving more than leaving a partner – it can involve the division of assets, working out the practical arrangements of children, and working to assume one’s reputation, because each partner wants to emerge with a reliable self-image for a future relationship. After the retrospection of post-mortem attribution there is a public distribution of individual versions of the breakup, or ‘death’ of the relationship. 

Whilst the break up of a long term relationship can be traced through these phases, and you might recognise yourself currently in one of these phases, there is no linear timescale. In reality you might spend years stuck in one of these phases, or the entire process may happen over a short space of time. 

Working out what you are feeling, and where your own head is at is a first step to help frame how you are feeling and pinpoint action, investment, or perhaps a bit of both. 

For some people therapy can help to find ways of repairing the damage and rebuilding – identifying the areas that need to improve, and give you an understanding of why things have deteriorated. ⁣⁣For others therapy helps with working through the loss of what was and realising your self-worth so that you have a much stronger foundation on which to make that decision. ⁣⁣

What I know for sure is that leaving a relationship that you have put your all into, and with a person you once couldn’t imagine life without, isn’t an easy decision, and that for many people, they stay until every last drop has been squeezed, and there are also many other intersecting, socio-economic factors inter-weaved into making a decision as to whether to stay or go. 

Everyone’s situation is different and unique. 

There is no one size fits all approach. 

But I also know that you deserve happiness, you deserve to be loved and to love in return, and that you are never too old, and never too late to begin again. 



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