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Ending A Relationship

Updated: Mar 3

Much attention is given to how to form relationships; however, have you ever learned how to end one? The Exit Voice Loyalty Neglect Model helps us think about our options when we are not satisfied with an existing relationship; but if we choose to exit, the model doesn’t provide much guidance on how to proceed.

A better understanding of how to end a relationship can help when resigning from a job, parting ways with a personal or professional organization, or ending a friendship or romantic partnership.

Communication scholars have broken the sequence of events that lead to a relationship dissolving into the following four phases (Duck, 1982):

  1. Intra-psychic: the person grapples in private with their dissatisfaction in the relationship

  2. Dyadic: the person negotiates the dissolution with the partner

  3. Social: the public presentation of the dissolution to social network ties

  4. Grace-dressing: retrospection about, and recovery from, the exit

Relationship Disengagement Strategies

Once you decide you want to exit the relationship, the dyadic phase is when dissolution communication strategies are used. In this stage, your approach may range from direct (e.g., sharing why you want to end the relationship) to indirect (e.g., not explicitly sharing the desire to exit). In addition, your approach may range from self-oriented (e.g., not caring about the other party) to other-oriented (e.g., showing sensitivity to the other party).

Building off the work of Baxter (1985) and others, Alajoutsijärvi, Möller, and Tähtinen (2000) identified two indirect and two direct exit strategies. Each of the four strategies includes an other-oriented approach (first bullet) and self-oriented approach (second bullet).


Disguised Exit: The disengager communicates in either words or acts, but without conveying the real message. By hiding their real wishes but still providing their partner with “hints,'' they present their exit wishes in a disguised form.

  • Pseudo-de-escalation: The disengager expresses wishes to change the relationship, but not that they wish to exit from it. They may state that they wish to reduce some investments made in the relationship, but still keep it alive, although secretly planning to dissolve the relationship.

  • Cost escalation: The disengager increases the other party’s relational costs up to the point that the partner starts to dissolve the relationship. For example, the disengager may employ manipulative tactics like being inconsiderate or unpleasant.

Silent Exit: The disengager does not explicitly communicate their desire to end the relationship.

  • Fading away: The disengager has no intention or need to communicate exit wishes (i.e., there is an implicit understanding that the relationship has ended).

  • Withdrawal: The disengager expresses their intentions through changed behavior. Changes in the openness and frequency of communication or reduced investment in the relationship signal decreasing interest.


Communicated Exit: The disengager makes clear their desire to end the relationship.

  • Negotiated farewell: Discussions about relationship dissolution take place, but without hostility or arguments. Both parties see the dissolution as inevitable or even beneficial and can therefore discuss the matter in mutual understanding.

  • Fait accompli: The disengager states explicitly to the partner that the relationship is over, leaving the partner no opportunity to discuss the matter further.

Revocable Exit: The disengager explicitly states their intentions concerning dissolution, but there is still an opportunity to save the relationship.

  • Mutual state-of-the-relationship talk: The disengager has a desire to discuss the reasons and the problems related to the relationship and is willing to look at it from the partner's perspective.

  • Diverging state-of-the-relationship talk: The partner's views are so distant that continuing the relationship is possible only if one or both partners change their views and reduce self-orientation.

Characteristics of Exit Strategies

The characteristics of exit strategies are presented below. Self-oriented strategies may damage the disengager’s network identity while other-oriented strategies avoid hurting the partner. Direct strategies increase the speed of the dissolution process while indirect strategies gives both sides time to adjust.

These descriptions of the dyadic phase of the relationship dissolution process can inform your thinking about ending relationships. The strategies and characteristics have great implications for the disengager, the partner, and how both parties make sense of the relationship afterward.

Think about the personal and professional relationships you have ended in your own life. Do you observe any patterns in the strategies you have used to end relationships? In the future, could using a different approach serve you and others better?


Alajoutsijärvi, K., Möller, K. and Tähtinen, J. (2000), Beautiful exit: how to leave your business partner, European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 34 No. 11/12, pp. 1270-1290.

Baxter, L.A. (1985), Accomplishing relationship disengagement, in Duck, S. and Perlman, D. (Eds), Understanding Personal Relationships. An Interdisciplinary Approach, Sage, London, pp. 243-65.

Duck, S.W. (1982), A topography of relationship disengagement and dissolution, in Duck, S.W. (Ed.), Personal Relationships 4: Dissolving Personal Relationships, Academic Press, London, pp. 1-30.

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