Breaking up is hard to do: the impact of unmarried relationship dissolution on mental health and life satisfaction

J Fam Psychol. 2011 Jun;25(3):366-74. doi: 10.1037/a0023627.


This study examined the impact of unmarried relationship break-up on psychological distress and life satisfaction using a within-subjects design. Among unmarried 18- to 35-year olds (N = 1295), 36.5% had one or more break-ups over a 20-month period. Experiencing a break-up was associated with an increase in psychological distress and a decline in life satisfaction (from pre- to postdissolution). In addition, several characteristics of the relationship or of the break-up were associated with the magnitude of the changes in life satisfaction following a break-up. Specifically, having been cohabiting and having had plans for marriage were associated with larger declines in life satisfaction while having begun to date someone new was associated with smaller declines. An interesting finding, having higher relationship quality at the previous wave was associated with smaller declines in life satisfaction following a break-up. No relationship or break-up characteristics were significantly associated with the magnitude of changes in psychological distress after a break-up. Existing theories are used to explain the results. Implications for clinical work and future research on unmarried relationships are also discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Family Conflict / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Personal Satisfaction*
  • Psychological Tests
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult