Relationship Termination: Ending a Business or Personal Relationship

Throughout the course in time, it has been acknowledged that one of the most difficult processes in life is a relationship. The effort and complications involved in maintaining a relationship is just one part of the stress. However, when it is time for a relationship to come to an end, a new stressful situation arises: how to terminate the relationship.

Many researchers have investigated the different problems with terminating relationships. One such problem is the threat that is hanging over a person’s head when in a relationship. For example, person “A” is always aware that person “B” can terminate the relationship at any time. Thus, there is a power struggle created within the relationship. According to Richard B. Stuart, “one person in the relationship always has more power than the other (104).” Therefore, this power struggle is heightened by the fact that the more vulnerable person is unsure of what may result during arguments, fights, etc. Power struggles in relationships can often lead to the lack of termination. This can arise in a situation where person “B” may be abusing person “A” and because of this, person “A” is scared to leave the relationship.

Relationships also exist in a nonpersonal sense of the word. For example, another common type of relationship is a business relationship in which a business, market, or firm acquires consumers and tries to retain them. These types of relationships have similar qualities and aspects as personal relationships and they often follow similar procedures. The difference between the personal relationships and business relationships is that the business relationships can adversely affect other aspects of life, such as your financial status, other business relationships and contracts that you are entering in or perhaps will consider entering into, etc.

There are often three perspectives that are researched and discussed when regarding relationship termination. Those perspectives are the social perspective, consumer marketing perspective, and channel and interfirm perspective. However, only one of those perspectives can be related to personal relationships, whereas the other two are related to business and marketing relationships.

Social perspectives of relationship termination can be related to Duck (1982), who frequently researched this process. In this research, he discusses the four-stage process in which he believes that relationship termination follows. The process is as follows: the relationship stage, the interphysic stage, the dyadic phase, and the social phase. Sometimes there can be a fifth stage, called the grave-dressing phase. The process ends with the party realizing that the relationship is no longer benefiting him or her and therefore, the relationship is terminated by the thought of the costs outweighing the benefits.

During the relationship stage, the relationship seems to be fairly happy. However, both parties feel that there may be certain qualities that they are looking for that are lacking. These feelings of lacking eventually lead to further dissatisfaction with the relationship, causing the other stages to occur.

The next stage is the interphysic stage. During this stage, the focus has gone from the relationship to the faults of the other person in the relationship. Virtually, everything that the other person does in the relationship is seen to be faulty. Pointing the other finger at the other person causes the faults of the other person to become more real and the verification of the faults is all that the person who is seeking the faults needs to begin the process of retreating from the relationship.

The third stage is known as the dyadic stage. During this stage, the relationship termination looms out in the open. One person in the relationship may say to the other that they are thinking of ending the relationship. Once this has been spoken out loud, the couple must face the issues involved by either solving the problem or one partner ending the relationship, by letting the other person involved know that they are serious about leaving.

The fourth stage is most often the last and is known as the social phase. During this phase, the people involved in the relationship start caring about the outward appearance of their relationship and how others may perceive the relationship and the problems. It becomes evitable that a split is in the near future and that soon, the partners will begin to go their separate ways.

Sometimes, there is a fifth stage that occurs, though not often. It is known as the grave-dressing stage. During this stage, the partner may give explanations that are true or not for why the relationship is over and either one or both of the parties involved may feel peace about the conflict.

Duck also discusses strategies in which the relationship can be ended: an indirect or direct approach. The indirect approach is broken down into two types of approach: the unilateral approach or the bilateral approach. In the unilateral approach, a person can slowly withdraw or continue to escalate the problems of the relationship. However, in a bilateral approach, a person can fade away or what is know as “pseudo-de-escalation,” which is often referred to as “let’s just be friends”.

The direct approach is also broken down into two types of approach: the unilateral approach and the bilateral approach. Unlike in the indirect approach, in the direct approach the unilateral and bilateral approach differ. The unilateral approach serves as discussing the state of the relationship between the partners. The bilateral approach, on the other hand, serves as a negotiated farewell, in which both parties are aware of the state of the relationship and the outcome of the termination (Giller 2001).

The most effective strategy out of the two types is the direct strategy. This allows for the most understanding in relationships. Each party is aware of the situation and its outcome. Conflict is avoided because each person in the situation comprehends the termination of the relationship and there are no questions about the status of the two people involved.

The most conflict arises when a person uses the indirect method. This method creates conflict because the parties are not aware of what is taking place, and are unsure if the relationship is coming to an end. By avoiding the people involved, it leads to unanswered questions and often times, creates conflict between the parties that can affect them mentally, emotionally, socially, etc.

Duck believes that another perspective of relationship termination is the consumer marketing perspective. This perspective is focused on consumer acquisition and retention. Consumer exit is considered to be a result of improper consumer relations. In order to retain a consumer, the provider must make available what the consumer seeks. According to Roos and Strandvik (1997), consumer relationship termination follows four concepts. The concepts are the initial state of the relationship, the triggers (which can be defined as anything that alters the current condition of a relationship) of the relationship, the termination process, and the final outcomes. The relationship termination process in this case is determined by the length of the process and the final outcome- is it favorable? In this case, consumers view the lack of customer satisfaction as the reason for terminating the relationship and the outcome depends on if the supplier will provide what the consumer is looking for.

This is significant to personal relationships as well. In a personal relationship, one person often has the role of the provider and the other person involved is often the consumer. During this process, person “A” (the consumer) is looking for person “B” (the provider) to do what makes person “A” happy. When person “A” remains unhappy, they begin the process to terminating the relationship.

The final perspective that Duck mentions is the channel or inter-firm relationship termination. During this termination, poor strategy is said to be the cause of failure (Giller 2001). This perspective is said to follow an exit, voice, loyalty, neglect, and opportunism process which leads to the termination. This process is based on the fact that all aspects of the business relationship must be considered when terminating the relationship. The previous factors mentioned (exit, voice, loyalty, neglect, and opportunism) can only play in part with the other factors that lead to relationship termination. In addition to the factors stated, the people involved must think about how the termination of the relationship will affect business and the business partners involved. They also have to consider how the alternatives to the current business relationships will compare with what they have now.

This perspective is also related in part to personal relationships. In personal relationships, people often take into consideration the other factors that may be involved. For example, one thing that people often take into consideration is children. When children may be involved in the relationship, there is more at stake in the relationship and thus, people may work harder to make the relationship successful.

Business relationships follow the stages that Duck outlines as well. In the business world, the dyadic stage is signified by when the persons involved make the decision to terminate the relationship.

The key of importance in all relationship termination is communication. Obviously, the indirect approach lacks communication. If communication was applied to the indirect approach, the outcome could possibly be favorable and amicable.

Conflict resolution is less successful in an indirect approach because the parties cannot express their feelings and emotions and likely, there are unanswered questions that are often left to wonder. Misunderstandings resulting from poor communication often leave the problem that was not discussed worse and that same problem is likely to arise in future relationships. Thus, being direct and solving problems can eliminate further conflict and misunderstandings in future relationships. It also can prevent trust issues within a person that was involved in the relationship.

According to Knapp, relationship termination follows a model which he refers to as the “Relationship Termination Model”. The model has five steps that are as follows: differentiating, circumscribing, stagnating, avoiding, and terminating.

Differentiating is when the parties involved in the relationship stop focusing on the “we” in the relationship and rather become focused on the “me”. The individuals start to emphasize that they are independent people, separate from the relationship. Instead of spending all of their time together, they stop focusing solely on the relationship and instead, they start developing different hobbies or participate in activities alone, rather than as a couple. During this stage, fighting or conflict may occur often and create a gap in the relationship between partners. An example of this stage can occur when one partner may say to the other, “I don’t enjoy large social gatherings any longer.” This example shows that the partner has begun to distance him/herself from the other. This stage can often last longer than most, as the people involved often times do not want to admit that there is fault within the relationship and will continue to try and make a broken relationship work. They may avoid facing the facts about the relationship and the fact that there are problems within the relationship. On the other hand, a person involved in the relationship may try to create problems in the hopes of ending the relationship.

Circumscribing is the second stage of the relationship termination. In this stage, communication decreases drastically. The parties involved in the relationship begin to avoid various topics of conversation in the hopes that they will be forgotten. The couple pretends that everything is okay in the relationship, when in fact it is not. During this stage, the couple may attempt to save the relationship, but at this point it is too late. An example of this stage can occur when one partner may say to the other, “How was work today?” This example shows that the partner may be trying to establish happiness or interest in the relationship again.

The third stage is stagnating. During the stagnating stage, the parties involved avoid discussing the relationship and relationship status because they believe that they will know what the other is going to say. At this stage, people begin to notice the change in the relationship and the differences in the couple’s behavior. This can often be characterized by unpleasant conversations that both parties are hoping to avoid. An example of this stage can occur when one partner may say to the other, “We have nothing to talk about.” This example shows that the partner does not want to discuss the relationship because they feel as though they are aware of what the other person in the relationship is thinking.

The fourth stage is avoiding. During the fourth stage, each partner begins to separate themselves from the relationship physically. There is an increased lack of communication and the opportunities for discussion are slim to none. An example of this stage is when one partner may say to the other, “If I don’t get a chance to call, I’m sure that you will understand.” This example shows the distance that the partner is trying to establish in the relationship.

The fifth and final stage of the “Relationship Termination Model” is terminating. During the termination stage, it may come naturally or randomly. The relationship can be terminated in a positive or negative aspect. An example of this final stage can occur when one partner may say to the other, “It’s over. Please don’t call.” This example obviously shows the end of the relationship after the couple has traveled through the stages and decided that they are no longer interested in attempting to keep the relationship alive any longer.

The problems with Knapp’s Relationship Termination Model arise when it is assumed that all relationships that are terminating follow this model stage by stage. Because the model is based more on a scientific point of view rather than a humanistic one, it is impossible to determine which of the stages apply to a particular relationship and which stages do not.
In fact, most studies on relationship termination are problematic because it is near impossible to pinpoint the exact stage of different couples. Because people are so different, the ways of terminating relationships is different as well. Therefore, no one person will be able to determine if a relationship will terminate following the stages mentioned.

However, it is important to try to understand why relationships terminate and the stages that they may follow. Although not all relationships terminate, at one point in time, a person may be faced with a relationship that they have to terminate, be it in a romantic or business setting. How a relationship is terminated can affect future relationships. In fact, a poorly terminated relationship can lead to trust and communication issues within a person.

Although there are problems with the researched methods about terminating a relationship, it is effective to research and discuss the perspectives in relationship termination because it allows the process to be understood and the lines of communication to be open.

Although social and business relationships are different in nature, the termination process follows very similar procedures and can adversely affect the people involved in very similar ways. Business and social relationships follow similar standards and it is not unlikely that they would follow similar termination procedures. Through the research of Duck, Giller, Stuart, and other sociologists, we are able to determine the faults in a relationship and how these faults lead to the termination.

Communication is important while terminating a relationship. It is one of the leading conflicts within relationship termination and communications. How the relationship is terminated can shape the type of person you are in future relationships.

Stuart, R. (2003). Helping couples change: a social learning approach to marital therapy. Guliford Press, New York.
Duck, S. (1982), “Dissolving personal relationships”, in Duck, S., Gilmour, R. (Eds),Personal Relationships, Academic Press, London, .

Giller, C (2001). The termination of inter-firm relationships. Retrieved on December 2, 2005 from

Borchers, T (1999). Relationship development. Retrieved on December 2, 2005 from

Syque (2002). Terminating relationships. Retrieved on December 3, 2003 from

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