Psychology, 2010, 1: 173-177
doi:10.4236/psych.2010.13023 Published Online August 2010 (
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. PSYCH
Breakup Distress and Loss of Intimacy in
University Students
Tiffany Field1,2, Miguel Diego1, Martha Pelaez3, Osvelia Deeds3, Jeannette Delgado1
1Department of Pediatrics, University of Miami Medical School, Miami, USA; 2Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, USA;
3Department of Psychology, Florida International University, Miami, USA.
Received May 26th, 2010; revised July 3rd, 2010; accepted July 6th, 2010.
Breakup distress and reasons for breakup including affiliation, intimacy, sexuality and autonomy reasons were studied
in 119 university students who had experienced a recent breakup of a romantic relationship. The sample was divided
into high and low breakup distress groups based on a median score on the Breakup Distress Scale. The groups were
then compared on their responses on the Breakup Reasons Scale. Only the intimacy subscale differentiated the high
versus low breakup distress groups. These data highlight the importance of intimacy for romantic relationships and the
loss of intimacy as a reason for breakups.
Keywords: Intimacy, University Students, Breakup Distress
1. Introduction
Breakup distress in university students has been related
to several factors. Breakup distress has been greater for
those who attributed the breakup to the other person (e.g.
the partner’s mood or insensitivity) or to environmental
factors (e.g. work stress or friends being disruptive to the
relationship) [1]. Breakup distress in university students
has also been related to global negative beliefs about the
self and cognitions reflecting self-blame [2].
In a study we conducted, university students who had
high Breakup Distress Scale sores reported: 1) not initi-
ating the breakup; 2) that the breakup was sudden and
unexpected; 3) that they felt rejected and betrayed; 4)
that they had less time since the breakup occurred ; and 5)
that they had not yet found a new relation ship [3]. In this
study, university students who had experienced a recent
breakup of a roman tic r elatio nship w ere divide d into high
versus low score groups based on the Breakup Distress
Scale. Females had higher Breakup Distress Scale scores.
Students with high breakup distress scores also scored
higher on the Intrusive Thoughts Scale, the Difficulty
Controlling Intrusive Thoughts Scale, the Sleep Distur-
bances Scale and on depression and anxiety scales. In a
regression analysis, the most important predictors of the
breakup distress scores were depression, feeling betrayed
by the breakup, shorter time since the breakup occurred
and a higher rating of the relationship prior to the brea-
kup. This explained as much as 37% of the variance,
suggesting that these factors are importan t contributors to
relationship breakup distress, but also suggesting that a
large part of the outcome variance was not yet explained.
In another study on college students, the closeness and
the duration of the broken relationship predicted the in-
tensity and the duration of emotional distress following
the breakup [4]. At least one other investigator reported
that greater levels of love were associated with a de-
creased probability of recovering from the breakup [5].
Fewer studies have been conducted on the reasons for
romantic breakups. In a longitudinal study, the primary
reason for breakup among college students was unequal
involvement in the relationship [6]. This phenomenon
may be similar to the “romantic disengagement” preced-
ing breakups reported by others [7]. In that study, roman-
tic disengagement, in turn, was negatively related to in-
timacy, suggesting the breakdown of intimacy as a rea-
son for breakups.
The reasons for breakups and how they relate to brea-
kup distress were the primary focus of the current study.
One might argue that the reasons for breakup may be the
loss of important qualities of the relationship. Collins [8]
suggested that romantic relationships provide a context
for the maturation of intimacy, affiliation, sexuality and
autonomy. Breakups are also related to these factors [9].
As these authors noted, “the initiation of a romantic rela-
tionship in adolescence is propelled by the combination
of a young person’s emerging need for sexuality with a
Breakup Distress and Loss of Intimacy in University Students
heightened need for intimacy with non-familiar others”
[9]. The intimacy needs involve emotional closeness with
a partner including having trust, understanding, disclo-
sure and the mutual expression of loving feelings. The
need for affiliation is thought to include companionship,
spending time together and sharing activities. And, the
sexuality needs are thought to include sexual attraction
and physical affection. Some have sugg ested that there is
an age-related decrease in the focus on affiliative and
sexual dimensions of relationships with a greater focus
on intimacy [10].
In a study on breakup reasons, high school students
were asked to provide a written response to the question
“What was the most important reason why your last ro-
mantic relationship ended?” [9]. The adolescents’ expla-
nations for the breakups were then reviewed and coded
using a categorical-content qualitative analysis method
[11]. The authors suggested that since the responses were
brief, they were assigned a code for the hypothesized
content-categories of intimacy, affiliation, sexuality,
identity and autonomy. The affiliation category included
breakup reasons like no time to gether, boredom, and dis-
interest while the intimacy category included items like
absence of love, distrust/d ishon esty, poor communicatio n
and poor treatment. Sexuality items included sexual dis-
satisfaction and lack of physical attraction. The authors
found that problems with affiliation (44%) and intimacy
(36%) were more prevalent in adolescents’ breakup ac-
counts than were problems with sexuality (20%). One of
the problems of this study, as was acknowledged by its
authors, was that the students were only being asked to
give the most important reason for the breakup when in
fact the breakup may have occurred for many reasons,
some big, some small. In addition, the qualitative metho d
limits the power of the data analysis. Nonetheless, the
data are highly suggestive and were used as the founda-
tion for the current study.
In the present study, a Breakup Reasons Scale was
created from many of the items from the Connelly and
McIsaac [9] study and was administered to university
students. In addition, to determine how breakup reasons
vary by breakup distress, the Breakup Distress Scale was
administered, and the sample was divided into high and
low distress groups based on a median split on that scale.
The groups were then compared on the Breakup Reasons
scale total score and the subscale scores labeled affilia-
tion, intimacy, sexuality and autonomy. Other ratings
were also completed as potential confounding variables
including ratings on the relationship, the partner and the
ideal relationship.
2. Methods
2.1 Participants
The initial sample was 156 students (N = 112 females)
who were recruited at a southeastern university. Of this
sample, 119 (76%) had experienced a breakup 3.5 mon-
ths ago on average after a relationship that averaged
3.3 months duration. The students had experienced 2.9
breakups on average, 2.0 of them having been with the
same partner. The breakup sample was divided into high
and low breakup distress groups based on a median split
on the Breakup Distress Scale. No differences were noted
between the two groups on demographic variables (eth-
nicity, age, and grade) except for gender. For the high
and low distress groups respectively: 1) age averaged
24.2 and 24.4; 2) grade averaged 13.6 and 13.3; and 3)
ethnicity was distributed Hispanic (75% and 80%), Cau-
casian (9% and 13%), African-American (6% and 2%)
and other (10% and 5%) (all ps non-significant). The
high Breakup Distress Scale score group had more fe-
males than the low distress group (86% vs. 68%, X2 =
5.67, p < .02), and females had higher scores on the
Breakup Distress Scale (M = 10.2 vs. 7.1, F = 6.41, p
= .01).
2.2 Procedures
The students were recruited for this anonymous ques-
tionnaire study from psychology classes and given extra
credit for their participation. During one of their class
sessions, the students completed a qu estionnaire that was
comprised of demographic questions, the Breakup Dis-
tress Scale, the Breakup Reasons Scale, and ratings on
their relationship before the breakup, how much they
missed their partner and what they viewed as the ideal
2.3 Measures
The Breakup Distress Scale (BDS) [3] was adapted from
the Inventory of Complicated Grief (ICG) [12]. Based on
that study, the internal consistency of the 19-item ICG
was high (Cro nbach’s α = 0.94).
The Breakup Distress Scale was adapted from the ICG
by referring to the breakup person instead of the de-
ceased person, and only 16 of the 19 ICG items that were
appropriate to breakups were included. A different rating
scale was also used, i.e. a Likert scale with responses
ranging from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very much so) including:
1) I think about this person so much that it’s hard for me
to do things I normally do; 2) Memories of the person
upset me; 3) I feel I cannot accept the breakup I’ve ex-
perienced; 4) I feel drawn to places and things associated
with the person; 5) I can’t help feeling angry about the
breakup; 6) I feel distressed about what happened; 7) I
feel stunned or dazed over what happened; 8) Ever since
the breakup it is hard for me to trust people; 9) Ever
since the breakup I feel like I have lost the ability to care
about other people or I feel distant from people I care
about; 10) I have been experiencing pain since the brea-
kup; 11) I go out of my way to avoid reminders of the
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. PSYCH
Breakup Distress and Loss of Intimacy in University Students
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. PSYCH
person; 12) I feel that life is empty without the p erson; 13)
I feel bitter over this breakup; 14) I feel envio us of o thers
who have not experienced a breakup like this; 15) I feel
lonely a great deal of the time since the breakup; and 16)
I feel like crying when I think about the person. The in-
ternal consistency of this 16-item scale was also high
(alpha = .91).
Other ratings were used to address relationship vari-
ables that might confound the breakup distress experi-
ence. These included rating the relationship as it was
before the breakup, rating what the student missed about
the partner, and the student’s view of an ideal relation-
The Breakup Reasons Scale (BRS) is a 20-item scale
that was developed for this study based on the qualitative
study done on high school students’ explanations for
their romantic breakups [9]. As already mentioned, they
identified five categories of breakup reasons including
intimacy, affiliation, sexuality, autonomy and identity.
The scale used in this study included subscales on 8 in-
timacy items, 7 affiliation items, 3 sexuality items and 2
autonomy items. Each of these items was rated on a
4-point Likert scale. These items appear in Table 1. The
internal consistency for this 20-item scale was high (al-
pha = .93). The alphas for the subscales were moderate to
high (intimacy = .84, affiliation = .79, sexuality = .71;
autonomy = .67).
The Relationship ratings included 5 items rated on a 4
point Likert scale including rating of the relationship
from 1 (ok) to 4 (wonderful).The other items were rated
from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very much so) including: 1) did
you and your partner share a lot of activities/interests
together? 2) did you and your partner share a lot of your
thoughts and feelings together? 3) did you and your
partner show a lot of affection toward each other? and 4)
did and your partner have a lot of disagreements? (re-
verse scored). These were then totaled for a summary
The Missing the Partner ratings were also made on a
Likert scale from 1 (totally disagree) to 4 (totally agree).
The items read, after the breakup: 1) I missed our daily
activities/rhythms; 2) I missed our talking/emotional
closeness; and 3) I missed our touching/physical close-
ness. These were added for a total rating.
The Ideal Relationship ratings were also made on a
Likert rating scale from 1 (almost never) to 4 (almost
always). The 11 items included “behaviors that you look
for in an ideal relationship” including: 1) Sharing favor-
ite activities; 2) A reciprocal relationship that is fair and
balanced; 3) A calming influence; 4) Nurturing behavior;
Table 1. Mean subscale and total sc ores on the Breakup Reasons Scale (standard deviations in pare ntheses) for low and high
distress groups and items of each subscale
Low Distress High Distress F p
Intimacy 15.70 (6.18) 20.04(5.73) 14.41 .000
Poor communication 2.40 (1.23) 2.81 (1.18)
Distrust 2.13 (1.14) 2.85 (1.24)
Unreciprocated love 1.70 (0.88) 2.42 (1.18)
Non-caring behavior 1.85 (0.99) 2.50 (1.14)
Diminishing empathy 1.82 (1.16) 2.22 (1.05)
Arguments 2.27 (1.16) 2.71 (1.25)
Infidelity 1.82 (1.16) 2.24 (1.05)
Hypersensitivity 1.76 (0.94) 2.24 (1.05)
Affiliation 14.28 (5.47) 14.81 (5.49) NS
Boredom 2.16 (1.10) 2.08 (1.16)
Lack of time together 1.98 (1.16) 2.32 (1.14)
Dissimilar interests 2.09 (1.08) 1.92 (1.06)
Dissimilar traits 1.96 (1.14) 2.17 (1.18)
Diminishing fun 2.13 (1.10) 2.16 (1.09)
Diminishing excit e ment. 2.20 (1.13) 2.17 (1.07)
Increasing time during other activities 1.93 (1.09) 2.14 (1.05)
Sexuality 5.71 (2.79) 6.00 (2.76) NS
Sexual dissatisfactions 1.82 (1.09) 2.15 (1.16)
Diminishing physical attraction 1.96 (1.14) 1.88 (1.04)
Diminishing physical affection 1.93 (1.05) 1.97 (1.08)
Autonomy 3.96 (1.90) 4.46 (1.98) NS
Problem maint a i n i ng i n d ep e ndent self 1.89 (1.04) 2.19 (1.17)
Control 2.07 (1.18) 2.27 (1.22)
Total score 17.28 (12.79) 23.75 (11.97) 7.71 .006
Breakup Distress and Loss of Intimacy in University Students
5) Allowing for my independence/room to breathe; 6)
Interesting conversations; 7) Exciting experiences; 8)
Humorous/fun-loving; 9) Positive/upbeat; 10) Sexually
satisfying and 11) Physically attractive. These were then
totaled for a summary rating .
3. Results
ANOVAs were conducted on the Breakup Reasons sub-
scales. As can be seen in Table 1, the total score for the
intimacy subscale significantly differentiated the high
distress from the low distress groups. This subscale in-
cluded poor communication, distress, unreciprocated
love, non-caring behavior, diminishing sympathy, argu-
ments, infidelity and hypersensitivity. Althoug h no group
differences were noted on the affiliation, sexuality and
autonomy subscales, the total score for the Breakup
Reasons Scale was also higher for the high distress group.
A correlation analysis suggested the following significant
relationships between the subscales and the to tal Breakup
Reasons Scale score: 1) intimacy = .79; 2) affiliation
= .66; 3) sexuality = .53; and 4) autonomy = .61 (all ps
< .05).
As can be seen in Table 2, ANOVAs on the o ther rat-
ings on potentially confounding variables yielded sig-
nificant differences between groups including n: 1) the
Relationship Ratings on the relationship prior to the brea-
kup; and 2) Missing the Partner Ratings. The groups did
not differ on the Ideal Relationship Rating.
4. Discussion
The primary finding that decreasing intimacy was a fac-
tor in high breakup distress is perhaps not surprising
given that intimacy was a primary reason for breakups in
at least one other sample [9]. In that study, 36% of the
adolescents’ responses were coded as intimacy-related,
and romantic intimacy was defined in terms of establish-
ing a high degree of emotional closeness with a partner,
supported by such processes as trust, understanding, dis-
closure and the mutual expression of loving feelings.
Others have described intimacy similarly [13,14]. And,
others have referred to the lack of intimacy as disen-
gagement and have reported that disengagement contri-
Table 2. Mean ratings on other variables differentiating the
low and high breakup distress groups (standard deviations
in parentheses)
Variable Low Distress High Distress F p
Rating 7.91 (3.34) 9.61 (3.00) 10.21.002
Missing the
Partner 3.27 (2.72) 5.71 (2.72) 22.88.000
Ideal Relation-
ship Rating 25.20 (8.43) 26.38 (5.46) NS NS
buted to the breakup itself as well as to greater breakup
distress [7]. In the present study the lacking intimacy
items included poor communication, distrust, unrecipro-
cated love, non-caring behavior, diminishing empathy,
arguments, infidelity and hypersensitivity.
Surprisingly, the affiliation, sexuality and autonomy
items did not differentiate the high from the low breakup
distress groups. Affiliation was cited by 44% of the ado-
lescents in the Connelly and McIsaac study [9] as being
the primary reason for romantic breakups, and sexuality
was given as the primary reason by 20% of their sample.
The literature, however, appears to be inconsistent about
the importance of these reasons for breakup. In another
study on adolescents, an age-related decline was noted on
the focus on sexual and affiliative dimensions of rela-
tionships in favor of focusing more on intimacy factors
[10]. In contrast, at least one other investigator has noted
that sexual dissatisfaction, boredom with the relationship
and a lack of reciprocated love were important causes of
the termination of relationships [15]. In addition, auton-
omy problems including partner dissimilarity and differ-
ent work styles were also explanations in that study [15]
and in another study [6].
Potential confound ing variables differentiated the h igh
distress from the low distress group including the Rela-
tionship rating and the Missing the Partner rating. These
findings are consistent with previous research reporting
greater emotional distress following break-ups of closer
relationships [4] and relatio nships with “greater levels of
love” [5].
It was not surprising that the Ideal Relationship Rating
scale did not differentiate the groups. Whether the stu-
dents had high or low breakup distress scores, their rat-
ings of ideal relationships were similar.
One of the expected findings was that a significantly
greater number of women than men were in the high dis-
tress group. This finding is consistent with earlier studies
[3,16]. Women are notably more reactive to interpersonal
stress and more likely to become depressed following an
interpersonal stressor [17]. As those authors suggested,
women possibly place more importance on harmonious
relationships [18]. Women are also twice as likely as
men to be depressed [19]. Those authors noted that this
difference might be related to different cognitive styles
and greater chronic stress in women [20].
In summary, althou gh this study was focused on repli-
cating a high school student study on romantic breakups
but with university students and using a scale instead of
an open-ended questionnaire, and qu antitative rather than
qualitative methods, the on ly factor on the Breakup Rea-
sons Scale that differentiated high from low br eakup dis-
tress groups was the intimacy factor. But, as was seen,
other variables also differentiated high and low breakup
distress groups including the relationship ratings and
missing the person ratings, feelings that may have de-
Copyright © 2010 SciRes. PSYCH
Breakup Distress and Loss of Intimacy in University Students 177
rived from the breakup rather than contributing to the
Larger samples are needed to stud y multiple variables,
not just self-report measures, and to conduct regression
and structural equations analyses to determine the rela-
tive contribution of these variables to breakup reasons
and breakup distress and their relationships to each other.
In addition, positive effects such as breakup dis-
tress-related growth [1,21] need further study. Finally,
research on partners’ interactions prior to the breakup
could reveal the qualities that were critical to the rela-
tionship, qualities such as intimacy that disappeared and
led to the breakup and the breakup distress.
5. Acknowledgements
We thank the students who participated in this study and
the research associates who assisted us. Correspondence
and requests for reprints should be sent to Tiffany Field,
Ph.D., Touch Research Institute, University of Miami
School of Medicine, PO Box 016820, Miami, Florida,
33101. Business phone number (305) 243-6781.
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