Breaking-up is hard to study: A review of two decades of dissolution research

Laura V. Machia, Sylvia Niehuis, Samantha Joel

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


The dissolution of romantic relationships can be conceptualized in many ways, from a distressing event or a consequential life decision to a metric of a relationship's success. In the current review, we assess how relationship science has approached dissolution research over roughly the past 20 years. We identified 207 studies (from 195 papers) published between 2002–2020 that captured relationship dissolution events and coded the papers for relevant features. The most common methodological approach to studying breakups was a self-report study (92%) in which relationships were tracked over time (72%) and breakups were treated as an outcome variable (79%). These results suggest that most research on dissolution has focused on predictors of it, rather than processes required to uncouple and circumstances surrounding the breakup itself. Coding revealed heterogeneous theoretical approaches, with the most common perspective across papers—social exchange/interdependence theory—informing only 15% of the papers coded. A majority (61%) of samples were representative of the nations, regions, or localities in which the studies were conducted. Yet, samples still tended to be disproportionately comprised of young, white individuals from Western countries. We conclude by discussing potential avenues for moving our understanding of relationship dissolution forward.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)113-143
Number of pages31
JournalPersonal Relationships
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2023


  • disengagement/dissolution
  • divorce

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Anthropology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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