Uncoupling: The End of a Relationship

In 1976, sociologist Diane Vaughan coined the term “uncoupling” to describe the series of stages toward ending a relationship. She found uncoupling proceeds like this:


Dissatisfaction: The partner initiating the process starts to become unsatisfied with the relationship and begins thinking about what they really desire out of life. Some describe a sense of deep dissatisfaction, and ask, ”Who am I, and who am I in the relationship with this other person?”

Attempt at change: The initiator tries to make changes in the relationship. This step can be difficult, especially if it is not clear what is actually wrong in the relationship.

Turning elsewhere: The initiator may turn away to find satisfaction elsewhere. looking for a sense of satisfaction or validation. Sometimes, this involves a lover, but in most cases, the initiator will seek a therapist, mentor or friend, or increase involvement in work, children, or hobbies.

Further distancing: The initiator begins to weigh the benefits of staying vs. leaving. The relationship starts to appear less desirable, and complaints and criticism creep in. Negative body language and expressions of discontent will start to occur more frequently.

Resolution: At some point after distancing, the initiator decides that continuing the relationship is not possible and prepares to inform the partner.

Informing: The initiator will tell the partner that the relationship will end. This is the most painful part of the process. This partner may have feelings of hurt and betrayal, which also puts the partner at a disadvantage. The initiator may have many years or months to prepare, and the partner is unprepared and in shock.

Acknowledging the ending: The process ends with an acknowledgment that the relationship can’t be saved.


As Vaughan points out, uncoupling is a dynamic process between the individual and the couple. In many cases, the uncoupling process can end at any time if both partners wish to reverse course and save the relationship.


Uncoupling using the mediation process is recommended to help couples part ways on good terms. In 2009, marriage and family therapist, Katherine Woodward Thomas introduced the phrase “Conscious Uncoupling”. Her best-selling book, Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After, is considered a roadmap for uncoupling with compassion, kindness, and respect.


You may be the “initiator” or the “partner” and navigating the stages above and moving towards uncoupling. If so, mediation is a tool that can be used at any stage during the process to allow for an amicable reconciliation or resolution.

Finding an experienced, professional mediator can help you and your family move forward in a peaceful, affordable, and respectful manner. If you would like more information about whether mediation would be right for you, please schedule a consultation: www.clementmediation.com

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only.