Attachment, breakup strategies, and associated outcomes: The effects
of security enhancement on the selection of breakup strategies
Tara J. Collins
, Omri Gillath
Department of Psychology, University of Kansas, 1415 Jayhawk Blvd., Fraser Hall, Room 426, Lawrence, KS 66045-7556, United States
Available online 28 January 2012
People tend to use different strategies to dissolve their romantic relationships (Baxter, 1982). The factors
predicting selection of breakup strategies, and especially personality factors, have received relatively lit-
tle attention. In ﬁve studies, using community and students samples, we revised the measure used to
assess breakup strategy use, examined the outcomes of the revised strategies, and investigated the asso-
ciations of these strategies with attachment dimensions. Attachment avoidance was associated with
using less direct breakup strategies; whereas attachment anxiety was associated with using strategies
meant to keep open the option of getting back together. In Studies 4 and 5, attachment-security primes
were found to decrease these tendencies. Implications for relationship dissolution and attachment theory
Ó2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The termination of a romantic relationship is a common, highly
emotional, stressful, and even painful experience (e.g., Sprecher,
Felmlee, Metts, Fehr, & Vanni, 1998). Approximately 70% of college
students have experienced a romantic relationship breakup (Knox,
Zusman, & Nieves, 1998). In the US, 43–50% of ﬁrst time marriages
end in divorce (US Census Bureau, 2005). Bowlby (1982), and
others (e.g., Simpson, 1987) have suggested that the loss of a rela-
tionship partner is one of the most traumatic and distressing
events in life. Identifying factors that can make the experience of
this prevalent event less distressing is essential.
A central factor affecting distress following the breakup of a
romantic relationship is the type of strategy people use to commu-
nicate the breakup message (Banks, Altendorf, Greene, & Cody,
1987). In the present work, after updating existing measurement
of breakup strategies, we examine the associations between break-
up strategy use, its associated outcomes, and adult attachment. We
then examine the possibility of decreasing the tendency to use less
compassionate breakup strategies through the enhancement of
1.1. Relationship breakups: strategies and outcomes
Most breakups are non-mutual, in that one partner desires to
end the relationship (the disengager), while the other may not
(the recipient; Hill, Rubin, & Peplau, 1976; Sprecher, 1994). This
imbalance may lead to negative outcomes, such as depression
and anger (e.g., Donald, Dower, Correa-Velez, & Jones, 2006; Sbarra,
2006). Cody (1982) and Baxter (1982, 1984) found that disengagers
use a variety of strategies to terminate relationships, which differ
in the amount of concern expressed toward the soon to be ex
-partner. These differences, in turn, are thought to affect people’s
reactions to the breakup (Banks et al., 1987; Sprecher, Zimmerman,
& Abrahams, 2010).
Unfortunately, much of the research on breakup strategies is
outdated. Speciﬁcally, many of the breakup strategy measures
are nearly 30 years old (e.g., Baxter, 1982; Cody, 1982) and do
not reﬂect recent technological advances that have provided indi-
viduals with new ways of terminating relationships (e.g., changing
one’s relationship status on Facebook). Additionally, existing mea-
sures are based on factor structures that suffer from various psy-
chometric issues, potentially leading to the loss of valuable
information (e.g., the use of PCA and the Kaiser criterion). The
absence of a psychometrically sound instrument has resulted in a
lack of consensus regarding the different types of strategies people
use (e.g., Baxter, 1982; Cody, 1982). An updated measure will allow
researchers to examine the effects of new technological advance-
ment and improve psychometric properties, leading to a better
understanding of breakup strategy use and its outcomes (e.g.,
Sprecher et al., 2010).
In general, strategies tend to vary in their level of directness and
in the amount of care or concern expressed toward the recipient
(Baxter, 1985; Sprecher et al., 2010). Strategies that involve indi-
rect communication of the breakup message to one’s partner, such
as avoiding the partner, reﬂect less compassion for the recipient
0092-6566/$ - see front matter Ó2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Corresponding author. Address: Department of Psychology, University of
Kansas, 1415 Jayhawk Blvd., Rm. 550, Lawrence, KS 66045-7556, United States.
E-mail address: email@example.com (T.J. Collins).
Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 210–222
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and are associated with more negative post-breakup outcomes
(Metts, Cupach, & Bejlovec, 1989; Sprecher et al., 2010). Con-
versely, breakup strategies that are more direct, such as openly
expressing the desire to breakup, reﬂect the most compassion or
concern for one’s partner and are associated with fewer negative
outcomes (Banks et al., 1987; Sprecher et al., 2010).
The use of positive tone during a breakup (e.g., the disengager
taking complete responsibility for the breakup; Baxter, 1982)
appears to have inconsistent post-breakup outcomes. While seem-
ingly reﬂecting concern for one’s partner (Sprecher et al., 2010), it
is typically associated with negative outcomes for the recipient
(Banks et al., 1987). Individuals who are broken up with via positive
tone experience more depression, less freedom, less satisfaction
with the post-breakup relationship, and perceive their partners
as less caring (Banks et al., 1987; Lambert & Hughes, 2010). Banks
et al. (1987) suggested that disengagers use positive tone strategies
when they want to decrease the current level of intimacy, while
leaving open the option for increased intimacy later (Banks et al.,
1987; Cody, 1982). Indeed, ex-partners are more likely to reenter
a relationship when positive tone strategies were used (Metts
et al., 1989).
1.2. Predictors of breakup strategy use
Of the relatively limited research on the tendency to use differ-
ent breakup strategies most focus on relationship-speciﬁc factors
(e.g., Baxter, 1982; Sprecher et al., 2010). For example, indirect
strategies are typically used when intimacy and partner similarity
are low and partner’s fault in the breakup is high (Banks et al.,
1987; Baxter, 1982). Conversely, more direct strategies are typi-
cally used when intimacy, social network overlap, and closeness
are high (Banks et al., 1987; Baxter, 1982; Cody, 1982). Disengagers
tend to use more positive tone when partner fault is low, and inti-
macy, constraint (i.e., partner desiring a more serious relationship),
and network overlap are high (Banks et al., 1987).
Much less is known about the role of personality and individual
differences in breakup strategy selection. In the current project, we
used the well validated framework of attachment theory (Bowlby,
1982) to further the understanding of individuals’ tendencies to
use various breakup strategies. Attachment theory has been suc-
cessfully used to study relational processes in general and break-
ups speciﬁcally (e.g., Bakermans-Kranenburg & Van IJzendoorn,
1997), making it an optimal individual differences component to
examine in relation to breakup strategies.
1.3. Attachment theory
The attachment behavioral system (Mikulincer & Shaver,
2007a) is thought to act as a regulator of proximity and security.
When people are threatened, the attachment system is activated,
and people are motivated to seek proximity to their security pro-
viding attachment ﬁgures (e.g., caregivers; Mikulincer, Gillath, &
Shaver, 2002). Over time, interactions with one’s caregivers are
thought to shape people’s mental representations of themselves
and others – known as attachment styles (e.g., Ainsworth, Blehar,
Waters, & Wall, 1978). According to Ainsworth et al. (1978), people
develop either a secure or insecure attachment style based on their
interactions with their attachment ﬁgures, with insecure attach-
ment further parsed into anxiety and avoidance. More recent work
has suggested that adult attachment is best conceptualized as the
degree to which people vary on these two dimensions (i.e., anxiety
and avoidance; Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998; Fraley, Waller, &
Brennan, 2000). In the current work we adopt this dimensional ap-
proach in examining the associations between attachment and
breakup strategy use.
The development of attachment avoidance is associated with
cold, rejecting parenting (Ainsworth et al., 1978). People high on
avoidance tend to not trust others, downplay their emotions, avoid
intimacy and issues related to relationships (Cassidy & Shaver,
2008). Attachment anxiety is thought to develop due to inconsis-
tent and intrusive parenting (Ainsworth et al., 1978). People high
on anxiety tend to be clingy, have a strong desire to merge with
their relationship partners, are highly sensitive to cues of love
being given or taken away, and are preoccupied with thoughts
about rejection and abandonment (Brennan et al., 1998; Hazan &
Shaver, 1987). Thus, individuals high on anxiety desire to have
close and intimate relationships, yet simultaneously mistrust their
partners, which often results in them cycling in-and-out of the
same relationship (e.g., Kirkpatrick & Hazan, 1994). People low
on anxiety and avoidance are thought to be securely attached
(Brennan et al., 1998). Attachment security is developed through
sensitive and supportive parenting, and is associated with long-
term satisfying relationships characterized by trust and intimacy
(e.g., Hazan & Shaver, 1987; see Mikulincer and Shaver (2007a)
for a review).
1.4. Attachment and interactions with others: the case of caregiving
Attachment orientations are known to affect the way people
interact with others. Speciﬁcally, attachment security and its
enhancement are known to be positively associated with caring
for others, compassion, and prosocial tendencies (see Mikulincer
and Shaver (2007a) for a review). Conversely, insecurity is associ-
ated with less effective caregiving and less prosocial behavior
(e.g., Collins, Guichard, Ford, & Feeney, 2006). Individuals high on
avoidance tend to be less prosocial and compassionate, and main-
tain distance from relationship partners by acting indifferently or
unresponsively when caregiving is needed (Feeney & Collins,
2001; Gillath et al., 2005; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007a). Attachment
anxiety, on the other hand, is unrelated to engagement in prosocial
behavior (Gillath et al., 2005). Rather, it is related to the reasons for
engaging in such behavior; individuals high on anxiety engage in
these behaviors to satisfy their own needs rather than the needs
of others (Gillath et al., 2005).
Studies examining the links between attachment and prosocial
behavior have primarily focused on situations in which a target
was experiencing distress and the participant had the resources
to help (e.g., Mikulincer et al., 2003). However, during a breakup
the person who is supposed to behave compassionately and pro-
vide help (i.e., the disengager) is also experiencing distress
(Sprecher, 1994). This distress is likely leading to the activation
of the attachment system, which may in turn hamper proper func-
tioning of other behavioral systems like the caregiving system,
affecting the individual’s ability to provide effective care (Mikulin-
cer & Shaver, 2007a).
1.5. Attachment theory, prosocial tendencies, and relationship
Several associations between attachment patterns and
breakups have been identiﬁed (e.g., Bakermans-Kranenburg &
Van IJzendoorn, 1997; Davis, Shaver, & Vernon, 2003; Feeney &
Noller, 1992). Attachment anxiety is positively associated with
preoccupation with the breakup, physical and emotional distress,
and angry and vengeful behavior following a breakup. Additionally,
anxiety is related to more attempts to reestablish the relationship,
and more unwanted pursuit behavior toward the ex-partner,
which leads to a vicious cycle – repeatedly breaking up and making
up (e.g., Davis et al., 2003; Dutton & Winstead, 2006). Attachment
avoidance is associated with a greater tendency to breakup (Feeney
& Noller, 1992), weaker emotional reactions to breakups, and less
T.J. Collins, O. Gillath / Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 210–222 211
proximity-seeking behaviors after the breakup. These ﬁndings ﬁt
with the tendency for individuals high on avoidance to evade
intimacy and potential confrontations with their partner (e.g.,
Schachner & Shaver, 2002). Finally, more secure individuals (low
on anxiety and avoidance) tend to experience fewer breakups,
use more social and less self-destructive coping strategies, and
are more likely to reach a resolution after the breakup (e.g.,
Bakermans-Kranenburg & Van IJzendoorn, 1997; Davis et al.,
2003). These ﬁndings, along with the literature about attachment
patterns and prosocial tendencies, suggest that attachment dimen-
sions could predict the kind of breakup strategies people prefer. To
date, however, no studies have examined attachment as a predic-
tor of the strategy used to terminate a romantic relationship.
In the current studies, we examined the associations between
breakup strategy preference, its outcomes, and adult attachment.
Our primary goals were to: (a) examine and update existing break-
up strategy measures; (b) assess the outcomes associated with
each of the strategies; (c) use attachment dimensions as predictors
of breakup strategy use; and (d) determine if enhancement of
attachment security can shift people’s preferences of breakup
strategies. We predicted that: (1) attachment avoidance will be
associated with using more indirect strategies (avoiding intimacy),
less caring/compassionate and other-oriented strategies. (2)
Attachment anxiety will be associated with the use of strategies
that help accomplish self-needs, rather than needs of the partner
(e.g., allow for reconnection at a later time). Finally, (3) attachment
security and its enhancement will be associated with the use of
strategies that are more direct, reﬂecting concern for the partner,
and strategies that result in less distress for the recipient.
2. Study 1
Study 1 had two goals: (1) updating the outdated list of disen-
gagement strategies (Baxter, 1982) by adding new strategies that
reﬂect socio-cultural changes and new technological advance-
ments; (2) reexamining the factor structure of the breakup strate-
gies after the addition of the new items. As mentioned above,
existing measures of breakup strategies suffer from various psy-
chometric issues. To overcome these limitations we compiled a re-
vised questionnaire consisting of 43 breakup strategies and used a
large community sample to conduct an exploratory factor analysis
(EFA), following current guidelines outlined by Preacher and Mac-
Four hundred one participants (83% female; aged 18–71;
Mdn = 28) volunteered to complete an online questionnaire. All
participants had experienced at least one romantic relationship.
2.1.2. Measure and procedure
The online questionnaire was advertised on a free online post-
ing service for several cities across the United States to obtain a
more representative sample. The listing called for volunteers to
participate in a short online study without explaining in advance
the essence of the study. Interested parties were directed to an-
other website where they consented and then proceeded to the
Breakup Strategies Questionnaire.
188.8.131.52. Breakup strategies questionnaire (BSQ). Thirty-seven of the
items examining breakup strategies were from Baxter’s (1982) dis-
engagement strategies measure. These items assess Baxter’s four
types of disengagement strategies: avoidance/withdrawal (e.g., ‘‘I
avoided contact with my partner as much as possible’’), manipula-
tion (e.g., ‘‘I tried to make my partner feel guilty if s/he wanted to
keep me in the relationship’’), positive tone (e.g., ‘‘I tried to prevent
my partner from having any ‘‘hard feelings’’ about the breakup’’),
and open confrontation (e.g., ‘‘I honestly conveyed my wishes to
my partner’’). Three items were used from Sprecher et al. (2010)
that were not included in the Baxter (1982) measure (use of caller
ID, block on instant messenger, talk face-to-face). Finally, three
additional items were added to address strategies speciﬁc to
romantic relationships (‘‘I started dating someone else in the hopes
that my partner would learn about my desire through my actions’’)
and the use of technology to terminate a relationship (‘‘I termi-
nated the relationship without letting my partner know about it di-
rectly, by changing my relationship status on my webpage
[Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, other Webpages]’’ and ‘‘I termi-
nated the relationship avoiding confrontation (i.e., not ‘‘face to
face’’) by calling, writing, or Instant Messaging my partner how I
felt’’). Participants were asked to estimate the frequency with
which they use each of the strategies to break up with a romantic
partner on a 1 (never)to7(extremely often) scale. Upon completion
of the breakup strategies measure participants were asked to pro-
vide some demographics, were debriefed and thanked.
2.2. Results and discussion
To examine the factor structure of the breakup strategies, an
EFA was conducted using the maximum likelihood extraction
and oblique quartimax rotation, which allows factors to correlate
with each other (see Preacher & MacCallum, 2003, for general
guidelines on conducting an EFA). A subjective scree test was used
to identify the appropriate number of factors to extract (see
Gorsuch, 1983), which indicated as many as eight factors should
be retained. Based on the scree plot results and Baxter’s (1982) ori-
ginal structure we examined factor structures ranging from a four
factor solution to an eight factor solution, using CEFA software
(Browne, Cudeck, Tateneni, & Mels, 2004).
Based on theoretical meaning, parsimony, and ﬁt of the differ-
ent models, a seven factor solution was adopted (see Table 1 for
model ﬁt statistics). Although the eight factor solution showed
the best ﬁt, upon examination of the items contained in each fac-
tor, the eighth factor did not add any theoretical distinction (the
items were similar to those on the avoidance/withdrawal factor).
The seven factor model’s item loadings were examined and
showed reasonable ﬁt as well as theoretically meaningful structure
(see Table 2 for item loadings). Our data did not provide strong
support for the four or ﬁve factor structures proposed by Baxter
(1982) and Sprecher et al. (2010), respectively. Moreover, under-
factoring (retaining too few factors) is theoretically more problem-
atic than overfactoring (retaining too many factors), as
underfactoring may lead to items falsely loading on retained fac-
tors, resulting in poor estimates of the true constructs. In addition,
although overfactoring may lead to a few factors with low loading
items, the major factors in the model will be well estimated (Fava
& Velicer, 1992; Wood, Tataryn, & Gorsuch, 1996). Therefore, the
Fit statistics for the factor solutions examined through exploratory factor analyses
(EFA) in Study 1.
df CFI NNFI/TLI RMSEA p-close
Null 8302.24 903 – – – –
4-factor 2127.65 737 .81 .77 .069[.065;.072] .000
5-factor 1845.35 698 .84 .80 .064[.061; .068] .000
6-factor 1639.49 660 .87 .82 .061[.057;.065] .000
7-factor 1469.65 623 .89 .83 .058[.054;.062] .000
8-factor 1293.84 587 .90 .85 .055[.051; .059] .024
212 T.J. Collins, O. Gillath / Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 210–222
seven factor structure was deemed the best solution out of the
examined factor structures.
Three of the seven factors [avoidance/withdrawal (11 items; see
Table 3 for relevant descriptive statistics), open confrontation (four
items), and manipulation (ﬁve items)] identiﬁed in the model repre-
sent factors nearly identical to the factors identiﬁed by Baxter
(1982) and Sprecher et al. (2010). The fourth factor identiﬁed is sim-
ilar to the factor created by Sprecher et al. representing distant/med-
iated communication (four items). A ﬁfth factor, positive tone/self-
blame (10 items), shares some of its items with Baxter’s and Spre-
cher et al.’s positive tone factors. However, our factor included not
only a concern for one’s partner, but also a tendency to blame one-
self for the breakup (e.g. ‘‘I took total blame for why the breakup was
needed, even if I thought I wasn’t the only cause’’), potentially mak-
ing the factor less positive than before. The sixth factor represents a
construct similar to a factor described by Baxter (1984) although not
included in her original scale—cost escalation (four items)—whereby
the disengager does things (e.g., picking a ﬁght, being demanding,
etc.) to make the relationship more costly for his or her partner.
The seventh and last factor is similar to one identiﬁed by Cody
(1982)—de-escalation (ﬁve items). With this strategy, the disengager
indicates that the breakup may be temporary or gradually termi-
nates the relationship (See Table 4 for factor correlations).
Factor loadings and means for the breakup strategies measure (Study 1).
Item Eigenvalue M(SD) Factor
I disclosed little about my personal activities and interests whenever we talked 3.72 (1.92) 0.82
I avoided scheduling future meetings with my partner whenever possible 3.77 (1.97) 0.77
I maintained our conversations on a superﬁcial level 3.68 (1.82) 0.73
I subtly discouraged my partner from sharing aspects of his/her personal life with me 2.92 (1.83) 0.73
I refrained from asking favors of my partner 4.42 (2.05) 0.69
I kept our conversations brief whenever we talked 3.94 (1.83) 0.68
I avoided contact with my partner as much as possible 3.56 (1.87) 0.57
I ceased doing favors for my partner 3.55 (1.87) 0.50
I reduced overt displays of liking and affection toward my partner 4.30 (1.92) 0.48
I used Caller ID to avoid calls on my cell phone from my partner 3.27 (2.06) 0.40
I devoted more time to other people and activities 4.35 (1.78) 0.36
Positive tone/self-blame 5.00
I tried to prevent my partner from having any ‘‘hard feelings’’ about the breakup 4.18 (1.93) 0.93
I tried to prevent us leaving on a ‘‘sour note’’ with one another 4.35 (1.94) 0.90
I told my partner that I did not regret the time we had spent together in the relationship 4.47 (1.87) 0.59
I avoided hurting my partner’s feelings at all costs 3.64 (1.88) 0.48
I tried to convince my partner that the breakup was in both our interests 4.00 (1.93) 0.43
I emphasized to my partner the good things gained from the relationship in the past 3.74 (1.86) 0.42
I took total blame for why the breakup was needed, even if I thought I was not the only cause 3.19 (1.88) 0.42
I tried to put my partner in a ‘‘good frame of mind’’ before breaking the news to him/her 2.61 (1.71) 0.36
I avoided blaming my partner at all costs, even if my partner was to blame 3.44 (1.87) 0.36
I verbally blamed my partner for causing the breakup, even if I thought s/he was not totally to blame (Recoded) 2.33 (1.56) 0.33
Open confrontation 3.20
I verbally explained to my partner my reasons for desiring the breakup 4.78 (1.96) 0.87
I openly expressed to my partner my desire to breakup 4.43 (1.89) 0.74
I honestly conveyed my wishes to my partner 4.57 (1.81) 0.59
I found a time and place when we could talk face to face about my desire to breakup 4.06 (2.02) 0.50
Cost escalation 2.40
I became unpleasant to my partner in the hopes that s/he would make the ﬁrst move 3.01 (2.03) 0.84
I picked an argument with my partner as an excuse to breakup 2.89 (1.94) 0.77
I made the relationship more costly for my partner by being bitchy, demanding, etc. 2.50 (1.77) 0.49
I dropped subtle ‘‘hints’’ that things had changed between us 4.22 (1.83) 0.26
I gave hints of my desire to breakup to people who know the other person 2.21 (1.59) 0.80
I intentionally ‘‘leaked’’ my desire to breakup to someone I anticipated would inform my partner 1.61 (1.23) 0.58
I started dating someone else in the hopes my partner would learn about my desire to breakup through my actions 1.92 (1.60) 0.50
I asked a third party to break the breakup news to my partner 1.19 (0.62) 0.36
I promoted new relationships for my partner to make the breakup easier 2.12 (1.67) 0.30
Distant/mediated communication 1.30
I terminated the relationship indirectly (through e-mail, text-messaging, or other unidirectional methods of communication) 2.17 (1.79) 0.78
I terminated the relationship avoiding confrontation (i.e., not ‘‘face to face’’) by calling, writing, or Instant Messaging my
partner how I felt
2.15 (1.65) 0.67
I terminated the relationship without letting my partner know about it directly, by changing my relationship status on my
webpage (facebook, myspace, Friendster, other webpages)
1.30 (0.96) 0.38
I blocked my partner from seeing me on Instant Messenger 2.45 (1.95) 0.25
I ‘‘waited it out’’ until conditions were conducive to breakup (e.g., until vacation time) 2.92 (1.91) 0.54
I procrastinated in saying or doing anything in the hopes that things would improve 4.03 (1.95) 0.43
I gradually ended the relationship over time instead of suddenly changing things 3.05 (1.83) 0.40
I tried to ﬁnd reasons for the breakup other than things about our relationship (e.g., a job offer, graduation, etc.) 2.78 (1.84) 0.32
I ‘‘eased into’’ the breakup by saying it was just a ‘‘temporary thing’’ 2.25 (1.72) 0.32
The factor structure (item loadings) remained the same when the exploratory
factor analysis was done separately for females and males, different status groups
(singles vs. coupled), and age groups (younger vs. older). Detailed results can be
obtained from the ﬁrst author.
T.J. Collins, O. Gillath / Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 210–222 213
In conclusion, Study 1 provided an updated scale and factor
structure of the different strategies individuals use to terminate
romantic relationships. Speciﬁcally, we identiﬁed seven separate
factors, each representing a unique set of breakup strategies. Three
of these factors replicated Baxter’s factors. The four remaining ones
were similar to factors identiﬁed by Cody (1982), Baxter (1982,
1984), and Sprecher et al. (2010), while bringing in new aspects.
The primary goal of Study 2 was to examine the reactions to and
consequences of the use of the different strategies we identiﬁed
in Study 1.
3. Study 2
As previously mentioned, the absence of a psychometrically
sound measure of breakup strategy use has led to inconsistencies
in existing work on post-breakup outcomes and breakup strategy
use (e.g., Lambert & Hughes, 2010; Sprecher et al., 2010). In Study
2, we examined participants’ reactions to a previous partner-initi-
ated breakup as a function of the strategy used by the ex-partner
(based on strategies identiﬁed in Study 1). We hypothesized that:
(a) indirect strategies (e.g., avoidance/withdrawal), thought to re-
ﬂect less care for the partner, will be associated with more negative
outcomes for the recipient; (b) direct strategies (e.g., open confron-
tation), thought to reﬂect concern for the partner, will be associ-
ated with more positive outcomes (e.g., seen as the ideal way of
communicating the breakup message) and with less negative
reactions to the breakup; (c) strategies that delay the breakup
(e.g., de-escalation) or emphasize only the positive aspects of the
relationship (e.g., positive tone/self-blame) will be associated with
the tendency to maintain a relationship with the ex-partner (e.g.,
have an ‘‘on–off’’ relationship; see Dailey, Pﬁester, Jin, Beck, &
A community and student sample of 114 volunteers was pre-
screened prior to inclusion in the study. Only individuals who
had experienced the breakup of a romantic relationship within
the past 3 years in which their partner either initiated or desired
the breakup were invited to participate. Of the 114 volunteers,
17 had never experienced a breakup, 21 never had a partner initi-
ate or desire a breakup, and 23 had not experienced this type of
breakup in the past 3 years. Thus, the ﬁnal sample included 53
individuals (77% female; aged 18–57; Mdn = 20).
3.1.2. Measures and procedure
Participants were directed to the study website either through a
posting on a free online community website or the University par-
ticipant pool website. After consenting, participants were asked if
they had experienced a breakup of a romantic relationship over
the past 3 years. If participants answered ‘‘yes’’, they were then
asked if their partner had desired the breakup or initiated the
breakup. If the participants again answered ‘‘yes’’ to either of these
qualifying questions, they were invited to participate in the study.
Next, participants were asked to think about the breakup (a partic-
ipant who experienced more than one breakup that ﬁt the criteria
was asked to think about the most recent one) and then to indicate
the strategies their partner used to terminate the relationship as
well as their reactions to the breakup.
184.108.40.206. Breakup strategies questionnaire. The BSQ (see Study 1) was
utilized to examine the strategies used by the respondent’s ex-
partner to end the relationship. Participants were asked to indicate,
using a 1 (did not use strategy at all)to7(deﬁnitely used this
strategy) scale, the degree to which their ex-partner used each of
the breakup strategies during the breakup (see Table 3 for descrip-
tive statistics and reliability).
220.127.116.11. Reactions to breakup. Participants were then asked to try
and recall their reactions immediately following the breakup and
how they felt about the breakup strategy their partner used. Items
examining the perceptions of the strategy used included: ‘‘The
strategy my partner used to break up was the best way of commu-
nicating his/her desire’’, ‘‘My partner was concerned about my feel-
ings during the breakup’’, and ‘‘My partner owed me more of an
explanation regarding their desire to break up’’. Items examining
the outcomes of the breakup included: the degree to which the
participant felt angry (one item) and distressed (one item), as well
as whether or not the participant remained friends with his/her
ex-partner (one item), and if the ex-partner wanted to ‘‘get back
together’’ following the breakup (one item; i.e., increasing the like-
lihood of having an ‘‘on-again/off-again’’ relationship; see Dailey
et al., 2009).
18.104.22.168. Control variables. To examine the contribution of breakup
strategy use on reactions to the breakup, over and above variables
previously identiﬁed to affect reactions (e.g., Davis et al., 2003); we
measure a variety of control variables. These variables included:
attachment anxiety and avoidance (measured by the ECR; Brennan
et al., 1998, see Study 3 for full details), length of the relationship,
time since the breakup, age at time of the breakup, gender, rela-
tionship satisfaction and commitment prior to the breakup (2
items; rated on a scale ranging from 1 = not at all to 7 = very),
who desired and who initiated the breakup (2 items; rated on a
scale ranging from 1 = only my partner to 5 = only me). Following
completion of the questionnaires, participants were debriefed
3.2. Results and discussion
The various outcomes of breakup strategy use were examined
using separate multiple regression analyses, one analysis for each
of the perceptions and reactions.
3.2.1. Perceptions of the strategy used
The type of breakup strategy used by the ex-partner was asso-
ciated with the way the breakup was perceived by the recipient
(see Table 5). More speciﬁcally, use of open confrontation strategies
predicted more satisfaction with the disengager’s method of com-
municating the breakup message, while use of avoidance/with-
drawal strategies was associated with less. Participants who
reported that their ex-partner used positive tone/self-blame and
open confrontation strategies tended to report feeling their ex-part-
ners were concerned about their feelings when breaking up with
them. The use of open confrontation and manipulation were nega-
tively associated with participants’ feeling that their partner owed
them more of an explanation.
3.2.2. Reactions to breakup
To examine the effects of strategy use over and above factors
previously shown to affect breakup reactions, we entered the con-
trol variables (i.e., trait attachment, gender, age, breakup initiator,
partner desiring the breakup, satisfaction and commitment prior to
breakup, relationship length, and time since the breakup) in the
ﬁrst block of each multiple regression analysis. In the next block,
the breakup strategies were simultaneously added into the analy-
ses. The contribution of each breakup strategy was examined and
the regression analyses were reran with the non-signiﬁcant break-
up strategies moved to the ﬁrst block, to examine the overall
214 T.J. Collins, O. Gillath / Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 210–222
contribution of the relevant breakup strategies, over and above the
control variables (see Table 6).
After controlling for the aforementioned variables, we found
that the breakup strategy used also affected reactions to the break-
up. Speciﬁcally, use of positive tone/self-blame strategies was re-
lated to an increased likelihood of remaining friends following
the breakup and the disengager wanting to ‘‘get back together’’
after they had ended the relationship. Conversely the use of dis-
tant/mediated communication strategies was associated with a low-
er likelihood of remaining friends. Use of open confrontation
strategies was negatively associated with the disengager trying
to ‘‘get back together’’ with the ex-partner and less anger following
the breakup. Conversely, the use of avoidance/withdrawal strategies
was positively associated with anger and distress following the
breakup. None of the other associations between strategies and
reactions signiﬁcantly added to the prediction of reactions to the
breakup (all bs = |.01–.32|).
Overall, Study 2 provided support for our claim that different
breakup strategies are associated with distinct post-breakup out-
comes. Thus, the use of direct strategies (i.e., open confrontation)
was associated with less negative outcomes. Conversely, the use
of indirect strategies (e.g., avoidance/withdrawal and distant/medi-
ated communication) was associated with more negative outcomes.
The use of positive tone/self-blame strategies was associated with
outcomes that allowed the disengager to maintain a relationship
with the recipient, potentially securing a backup plan for the future
(i.e., the possibility to get back together).
4. Study 3
After revising the measure used to assess breakup strategies
(Study 1), and demonstrating its ability to predict post-breakup
outcomes (Study 2), we next focused on predicting people’s
tendency to use each of the identiﬁed strategies. Based on the
literature reviewed in the introduction, in Studies 3–5 we focused
on the disengager’s attachment orientation as a personality dimen-
sion that may affect the tendency to use each of the breakup
Attachment patterns are found in numerous studies to be asso-
ciated with various relationship outcomes (e.g., quality, satisfac-
tion, length; for a review see Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007a).
Attachment security is positively associated with more compas-
sion and effective caregiving, attachment avoidance is associated
with less compassion and avoidance of relationship issues, and
attachment anxiety is associated with ineffective caregiving that
is focused on self-needs (Feeney & Collins, 2001; Gillath et al.,
2005; Simpson, Rholes, & Nelligan, 1992). Therefore, we predicted
that attachment security will be associated with the use of strate-
gies that effectively reduce the recipient’s distress (e.g., open
confrontation). Attachment avoidance will be associated with the
tendency to use more indirect strategies (e.g., avoidance/with-
drawal). Finally, attachment anxiety will be associated with strate-
gies that accomplish self-needs, such as maintaining contact with
the ex-partner to allow for increased intimacy at a later time
(e.g., positive tone/self-blame).
A community sample, consisting of 107 participants (65%
female; aged 18–65; Mdn = 21), completed a battery of question-
naires for no monetary reward. All of the participants had experi-
enced at least one romantic relationship.
Participants completed a battery of questionnaire including
measures assessing the following constructs:
22.214.171.124. Attachment. The Experiences in Close Relationships (ECR;
Brennan et al., 1998), a 36-item self-report measure, was used to
assess attachment anxiety and avoidance. Participants were asked
to rate the extent to which each item describes their close relation-
ships, in general, on a 1 (not at all)to7(
very much) scale. Eighteen
items tapped attachment anxiety (e.g., ‘‘I worry about being aban-
doned’’) and 18 examined attachment avoidance (e.g., ‘‘I ﬁnd it dif-
ﬁcult to allow myself to depend on close relationship partners’’).
The reliability and validity of the scales have been demonstrated
repeatedly in the past (e.g., Brennan et al., 1998), alphas were high
for both dimensions in the current study (both
s = .91), and the
two scales were positively correlated, r= .20, p< .05.
126.96.36.199. Breakup strategies. The BSQ constructed in Study 1 was
used in the current study. Participants were asked to think about
their romantic relationships and report the frequency with which
Descriptive statistics of breakup strategy use and likelihood ratings for Studies 1–5.
Type of strategy Study 1 (n= 401) Study 2 (n= 53) Study 3 (n= 107) Study 4 (n= 150) Study 5 (n= 97)
Avoidance/withdrawal 3.77 (1.34) 0.20 .90 3.70 (1.36) 0.04 .86 3.91 (1.18) 0.07 .86 3.97 (1.28) 0.30 .89 4.15 (1.15) 0.03 .84
Positive tone/self-blame 3.93 (1.21) 0.16 .82 3.77 (1.28) 0.00 .83 4.40 (1.09) 0.03 .77 4.74 (.96) 0.29 .73 4.59 (.95) 0.17 .67
Open confrontation 4.46 (1.55) 0.46 .82 3.94 (1.58) 0.01 .67 4.36 (1.35) 0.45 .65 5.38 (1.41) 0.74 .80 5.52 (1.29) 0.98 .83
Cost escalation 3.16 (1.44) 0.41 .76 3.38 (1.59) 0.18 .78 3.28 (1.39) 0.53 .71 3.17 (1.30) 0.44 .71 3.33 (1.36) 0.45 .68
Manipulation 1.81 (.94) 1.42 .70 2.58 (1.36) 0.61 .73 1.99 (1.06) 1.30 .69 1.84 (.96) 2.13 .71 1.96 (1.12) 2.04 .78
Mediated communication 2.02 (1.12) 1.36 .63 2.97 (1.70) 0.22 .74 2.03 (1.17) 1.30 .62 1.96 (1.02) 1.28 .62 2.06 (1.19) 1.64 .68
De-escalation 3.01 (1.29) 0.44 .73 3.17 (1.29) 0.01 .60 3.17 (1.30) 0.21 .69 3.25 (1.20) 0.16 .63 3.19 (1.34) 0.47 .73
Note: Means for Studies 1 and 3 are measured on a seven point Likert scale ranging from 1 (never)to7(extremely often) and reﬂect participant’s previous use of strategies.
Study 2 reﬂects ratings of an ex-partner’s use of each strategy in a prior breakup, ranging from 1 (did not use strategy at all)to7(deﬁnitely used this strategy). Studies 4 and 5
indicate participant’s likelihood ratings of strategy use in a hypothetical breakup, ranging from 1 (very unlikely)to7(very likely).
Pearson correlations between factors of the breakup strategies questionnaire
Factor 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1. Avoidance/withdrawal 1.00
2. Positive tone/self-blame 0.19
3. Open confrontation 0.10 0.33
4. Cost escalation 0.44
5. Manipulation 0.33
7. De-escalation 0.38
T.J. Collins, O. Gillath / Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 210–222 215
they use each of the strategies to break up with a relationship part-
ner. Responses to the 43 items were given on a scale ranging from
1(never)to7(extremely often; see Table 3).
Multiple research assistants were instructed to go to a variety of
locations (e.g., on campus, downtown) in a Midwestern college
town and solicit participation from the ﬁrst people they saw at
each location, in order to minimize selection biases. After provid-
ing informed consent, participants completed the ECR, BSQ, and a
demographics questionnaire. Following completion of the ques-
tionnaires, participants were debriefed and thanked. The sequenc-
ing of survey measures was varied across several versions of the
packets to control for possible order effects.
4.2. Results and discussion
4.2.1. Preliminary analysis
A conﬁrmatory factor analysis (CFA) was conducted using LIS-
REL software (Jöreskog & Sörbom, 2006) to verify that the factor
structure identiﬁed in Study 1 held. The sample size in Study 2
was insufﬁcient to conduct a CFA, therefore we used the larger
sample in Study 3 to conﬁrm our factor structure. Based on our
large number of indicators (43 items) we created three parcels
for each of our seven breakup strategies (21 parcels total). We cre-
ated parcels using the balancing technique wherein multiple items
are averaged together (with special care to balance high and low
loading items equally across the parcels) and each average/parcel
is then used as an indicator of a construct (for more information
on parceling see Little, Cunningham, Shahar, & Widaman, 2002).
Parceling increases the reliability of the estimates, decreases the
number of estimated parameters, and reduces the sources of sam-
pling error (Little et al., 2002). The seven factor model was found to
have acceptable ﬁt,
(168) = 279.45, pclose = .06, RMSEA = .07,
95% RMSEA CI [.05,.08], NNFI = .91, CFI = .93, indicating that the
factor structure we identiﬁed in Study 1 holds for the new sample
in Study 3.
Structural equation modeling (using LISREL software) was uti-
lized to examine the links between the attachment dimensions
and the use of each of the breakup strategies. The use of the seven
breakup strategies was predicted from attachment anxiety, attach-
ment avoidance, and the interaction of the two dimensions. The
overall ﬁt of the ﬁnal structural model was good,
(362) = 550.63, pclose ﬁt = .21, RMSEA = .056; 95% RMSEA CI
[.04,.07], NNFI = .90, CFI = .92 (see Fig. 1 for structural model).
4.2.2. Attachment avoidance
Attachment avoidance positively predicted the use of indirect
strategies, such as avoidance/withdrawal,manipulation, and dis-
tant/mediated communication; less direct strategies, such as open
confrontation; and fewer strategies that allow for continued access
to the partner, such as positive tone/self-blame.
The main effect of avoidance predicting distant/mediated com-
munication was qualiﬁed by a two-way interaction with anxiety.
Speciﬁcally, attachment avoidance was positively associated with
the use of these strategies, but only for individuals high in anxiety
(simple slope for 1 SD above the mean for anxiety: b= .48, SE = .14,
p< .001; slope for 1 SD below the mean: b=.002, SE = .14, ns).
Similarly, the main effect of avoidance on use of open confrontation
was qualiﬁed by a signiﬁcant interaction with anxiety. Attachment
Recipients’ perceptions of strategy used (Study 2).
Strategy used Perception of strategy used
Ideal communication method Concern for feelings More explanation needed
(.26) .02 (.21) .45 (.28)
Positive tone/self-blame .07 (.25) .60
(.20) .27 (.27)
Open confrontation .49
Cost escalation .22 (.20) .13 (.16) .03 (.22)
Manipulation .48 (.25) .28 (.20) .56
Mediated/distant communication .25 (.23) .06 (.18) .04 (.25)
De-escalation .17 (.25) .22 (.20) .28 (.28)
.44 .49 .37
Hierarchical multiple regression analyses predicting breakup reactions from strategy
Reaction to breakup B(SE)
Remain friends 4.06
Block 1 .50
Block 2 .17
Positive tone/self-blame .90
Distant/mediated communication .38
Get back together 4.48
Block 1 .63
Block 2 .06
Positive tone/self-blame .54
Open confrontation .45
Block 1 .40
Block 2 .16
Open confrontation .52
Block 1 .45
Block 2 .06
Control variables include: attachment avoidance, anxiety, age at time of
breakup, gender, satisfaction and commitment before the breakup, relationship
length, time since breakup, initiator of breakup, desire for breakup, and remaining
These effects became marginally signiﬁcant after the addition of the controls,
however, these effect were statistically signiﬁcant prior to the addition.
216 T.J. Collins, O. Gillath / Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 210–222
avoidance predicts less use of open confrontation, but only among
individuals high in anxiety (slope 1 SD above the mean for anxiety:
b=.66, SE = .16, p< .001; slope 1 SD below the mean: b=.14,
SE = .16, ns).
4.2.3. Attachment anxiety
Attachment anxiety predicted the use of the positive tone/self-
blame and de-escalation strategies, which may reﬂect the tendency
for anxiously attached individuals to try to maintain a relationship
with their ex-partners. Finally, attachment anxiety was predictive
of the use of distant/mediated communication; however this effect,
as mentioned above, was qualiﬁed by a signiﬁcant interaction with
In summary, Study 3 provided further support for the factor
structure of breakup strategies we identiﬁed in Study 1. Further-
more, the results of Study 3 were consistent with our predictions
and attachment theory, such that attachment avoidance was asso-
ciated with indirect strategies, which are known to be associated
with less caring and to result in greater amounts of distress for
the recipient (Study 2). Also, as expected, attachment anxiety pre-
dicted the use of strategies that allow for continued access to the
ex-partner (e.g., positive tone/self-blame; see Study 2) and postpone
Fig. 1. Structural equation model (SEM) examining the relationships between attachment anxiety and avoidance and breakup strategy use. Standardized betas predicted
strategy use from attachment dimensions. Latent variables were allowed to correlate, however, these estimates are not included in the ﬁgure to ease interpretability. All
displayed pathways are signiﬁcant,
Low High Low High
Fig. 2. Effects of the security prime (vs. neutral) on the relationship between trait
attachment dimensions and the likelihood of using the avoidance/withdrawal and
positive tone/self-blame strategies in Study 5. In predicting avoidance/withdrawal:
the slope for the neutral prime was signiﬁcant, b= .56, SE = .23, p= .02, whereas the
slope secure prime was not b=.24, SE = .21, ns. In predicting positive tone/self-
blame: the slope for the neutral prime was signiﬁcant, b= .40, SE = .17, p= .02,
whereas the slope secure prime was not b=.11, SE = .18, ns.
T.J. Collins, O. Gillath / Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 210–222 217
the breakup (e.g., de-escalation). This ﬁts with the tendency for
individuals high on anxiety to cycle in and out of the same rela-
tionship (Kirkpatrick & Hazan, 1994) and avoid terminating rela-
tionships, even when they are not satisﬁed (Slotter & Finkel, 2009).
5. Study 4
Study 3 provided initial support for the predicted associations
between attachment dimensions and breakup strategy use. Study
3, did not, however, provide causal support for this association. Re-
cent research has shown that state attachment can be manipulated,
at least temporarily, through priming (Gillath, Hart, Noftle, & Stock-
dale, 2009; for reviews see Gillath, Selcuk, & Shaver, 2008; Mikulin-
cer & Shaver, 2007b). For example, manipulating state attachment,
and speciﬁcally enhancing the sense of attachment security was
shown to increase individuals’ propensity to express compassion
and engage in various prosocial behaviors including helping others
in distress (e.g., Mikulincer, Shaver, Gillath, & Nitzberg, 2005).
These ﬁndings suggest that temporarily changing people’s sense
of attachment security or insecurity will potentially affect breakup
strategy preference. Further, the security prime may have a greater
effect on breakup strategy preference for insecure individuals, who
are more likely to use less ideal strategies in the ﬁrst place (see
Study 3). This prediction is in line with recent ﬁndings about the
interaction between security priming and attachment dimensions
(Cassidy, Shaver, Mikulincer, & Lavy, 2009).
To test these ideas we experimentally enhanced participants’
sense of attachment security or insecurity and compared the effects
of these primes on the likelihood to use each breakup strategy in a
hypothetical breakup scenario, to those of a non-attachment-re-
lated neutral prime. We predicted that (1) exposure to an attach-
ment avoidance prime would increase the preference to use the
strategies used by individuals high in avoidance (e.g., avoidance/
withdrawal); (2) exposure to an attachment anxiety prime would in-
crease the preference to use strategies preferred by individuals high
in anxiety (e.g., positive tone/self-blame), and (3) exposure to an
attachment security prime, would decrease participants’ preference
to use strategies associated with insecurity such as indirect and self-
ish strategies. This effect should be especially pronounced among
individuals who are more likely to use these strategies in the ﬁrst
place (i.e., individuals high on avoidance or anxiety, respectively).
One hundred ﬁfty-three individuals (68% female; aged 18–52;
Mdn = 21), completed a packet of questionnaires. Three individuals
did not complete the essay (i.e., prime) portion of the question-
naire and were thus excluded from the analyses, resulting with a
ﬁnal sample of 150 individuals.
Attachment was assessed using the ECR (Brennan et al., 1998)
and the tendency to use the various breakup strategies was assessed
using the BSQ (see Studies 1–3). The instructions for the BSQ asked
participants to imagine that they wanted to terminate a hypotheti-
cal relationship (not with a relationship with a previous or current
partner) and to indicate the likelihood that they would use each of
the breakup strategies, using a 1 (very unlikely)to7(very likely) scale.
People were approached in various locations in a Midwestern
college town (e.g., in the library, while walking through downtown,
etc.) and asked to participate in a psychological experiment.
After consenting, participants completed the ECR followed by a
distractor questionnaire asking questions about their daily life (to
avoid priming effects by the ECR). Participants were then randomly
assigned to one of four conditions: (a) secure (n=39), (b) anxious
(n=41), (c) avoidant (n=39), or (d) neutral (n=31). Each attach-
ment prime consisted of a short vignette describing a romantic
relationship participants should imagine and write about, which
was used to experimentally manipulate the participant’s state
attachment (Gillath et al., 2009; see Appendix for anxious and
avoidant primes). For example, in the secure priming condition
participants were instructed:
Try to remember a close relationship in which you felt that the
goal of getting close to your partner was achieved with relative
ease, a relationship in which you felt comfortable being depen-
dent on your partner or comfortable with your partner being
dependent upon you, a relationship in which you did not worry
that you would be abandoned or that your partner would get
too close to you. Please describe it in detail. (You may refer to
external events, behaviors of the parties involved and internal
feelings: thoughts, emotions, desires, and the like.)
As suggested by Baldwin and colleagues (Baldwin, Fehr,
Keedian, & Seidel, 1993; Baldwin, Keedian, Fehr, Enns, & Koh-Rang-
arajoo, 1996) every person has a complete set of modules or sche-
mas ﬁtting with the different attachment orientations (i.e., secure,
anxious, avoidant). The primes activate the speciﬁc relevant sche-
ma, making it more accessible as participants answered our break-
up strategies measure. The individuals completing the neutral
prime were instructed to write about a time they completed a
mundane task with an acquaintance. Following the manipulation,
participants completed the BSQ, a demographic questionnaire,
were debriefed and thanked. All the primes used in the current
study (and Study 5) were successfully used in numerous previous
studies (see Gillath et al., 2008; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007b).
5.2. Results and discussion
Separate regression analyses, one analysis for each of the seven
types of breakup strategies, were used to examine the effects of
prime type (security, anxious, avoidant, or neutral), attachment
dimensions, and their interactions, on the use of breakup strategies
in a hypothetical scenario. Three dummy variables were created to
represent the four prime types, one for the security (D1), one for the
anxiety (D2), and one for the avoidance prime (D3), with the neutral
prime as the reference group (see Cohen, Cohen, West, & Aiken,
2003). For the sake of parsimony and to avoid inﬂating the chance
of a Type I error we examined only the main effects and interactions
of interest (see Loftus, 1996). Our primary goal in Study 4 was to
examine the effects of enhancing attachment security (or insecu-
rity) on hypothetical breakup strategy use. Therefore, we examined
the interactions between the primed and trait attachment based on
the results from Study 3 (determined by which attachment dimen-
sions predicted each type of breakup strategy).
5.2.1. Main effects of attachment primes
There were no main effects for any of the attachment primes
(security, avoidance, or anxiety), bs |.01–.14|, ns. However, there
were signiﬁcant interactions between primed security and trait
Based on the results from Study 3 we examined the interactions between primed
attachment and trait avoidance on the following strategies: avoidan ce/withdrawal,
positive tone/self-blame, open confrontation, manipulation, and distant/mediated
communication. We also exa mined the two-way interac tions between primed
attachment and trait anxiety on the following strategies: positive tone/self-blame,
distant/mediated communication, and de-escalation. Finally, we examined the three
way interactions between primed attachment, trait avoidance and trait anxiety on the
open confrontation and distant/mediated communication strategies.
218 T.J. Collins, O. Gillath / Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 210–222
5.2.2. Security prime and trait attachment avoidance
The interaction of primed state attachment security and trait
avoidance signiﬁcantly predicted the hypothetical use of avoid-
ance/withdrawal strategies, b=.27, p= .02;
= .03, p= .02;
F(7,142) = 2.74, p= .01, R
= .12. In the neutral prime condition
(our dummy code reference group), trait attachment avoidance
was associated with greater use of avoidance/withdrawal breakup
strategies, b= .53, SE = .21, p= .01; whereas in the security prime
condition, attachment avoidance was no longer associated with
the use of avoidance/withdrawal strategies, b=.15, SE = .20, ns.
This suggests that security prime eliminated the association be-
tween trait avoidance and the avoidance/withdrawal strategies.
All other interactions of interest between primed attachment and
trait avoidance did not reach signiﬁcance, we elaborate on these
ﬁndings in the general discussion.
5.2.3. Security prime and trait attachment anxiety
The interaction between primed attachment security and trait
attachment anxiety signiﬁcantly predicted the hypothetical use
of positive tone/self-blame strategies, b=.54, p= .001;
p= .001; F(7,142) = 2.08, p< .05, R
= .09. In the neutral priming
condition, attachment anxiety predicted the tendency to use more
positive tone/self-blame breakup strategies, b= .46, SE = .22, p= .04;
whereas in the security priming condition, those high on attach-
ment anxiety showed a decreased tendency to use positive tone/
self-blame strategies, b=.37, SE = .12, p= .003. This suggests that
security prime eliminated, and actually reversed the association
between trait anxiety and the positive tone/self-blame strategies.
None of the other interactions of interest between primed attach-
ment and trait attachment anxiety signiﬁcantly added to the pre-
dictive ability of the models. The three-way interactions of
interest (for distant/mediated communication and open confrontation
strategies) between the prime, trait attachment anxiety and avoid-
ance were also not signiﬁcant.
Although we expected the priming to affect all breakup strate-
gies, it did not. Looking at the distribution of responses with regard
to the tendency to use each of the strategies raises the possibility
that a lack of variance underlies these null effects (see Table 3). Al-
most no one in our sample reported that they would use manipu-
lation and distant/mediated communication strategies (a ﬂoor
effect) and almost everyone reported that they would use open
confrontation (ceiling effect), which likely reduced the effects of
the primes on the tendency to use these strategies. We elaborate
on these ﬁndings in the general discussion.
Overall, in Study 4 we found that enhancement of attachment
security affected the selection of breakup strategies in a hypothet-
ical breakup scenario, primarily for individuals who are already
more likely to use speciﬁc strategies. Thus, primed security inter-
acted with trait attachment, such that individuals high on avoid-
ance were less likely to prefer indirect strategies (i.e., avoidance/
withdrawal), and anxiously attached people were less likely to pre-
fer positive tone/self-blame strategies. Surprisingly, we did not ﬁnd
main effects for any of the attachment primes, only interactive ef-
fects. Based on the lack of main effects for the primes (security and
insecurity), in Study 5 we focus exclusively on trait attachment as a
moderator of the effects of the security prime on hypothetical
breakup strategy use (we elaborate more on these null effects in
the general discussion). Therefore, Study 5 was designed to repli-
cate these interactions, while ruling out a possible alternative
explanation for our effects (i.e., increased positive affect).
6. Study 5
Study 4 provided initial support for the beneﬁcial effects of en-
hanced attachment security on the hypothetical use of avoidance/
withdrawal and positive tone/self-blame breakup strategies. The goal
of Study 5 was to replicate these effects, while verifying that they
are due to the sense of security rather than a general positivity in-
crease. Participants completed a priming task that activated
attachment security, positive or neutral non-attachment-related
thoughts. Following the priming task, participants were asked to
complete the BSQ with regard to a hypothetical breakup.
Like in Study 4, we predicted that the enhancement of attach-
ment security would result in a decreased tendency to use indirect
strategies that result in negative outcomes for the recipient, espe-
cially among individuals high on attachment avoidance (who are
more likely to use such strategies in the ﬁrst place). In addition,
we expected that the security prime would decrease anxious indi-
viduals’ tendency to use strategies that focus on self-over other-
needs (i.e., leave relationship open for romantic contact at a later
time). We also predicted that these reductions would be unique
to the security prime and will not happen in the positive affect
or neutral conditions.
Ninety-seven individuals (63% female; aged 18–57; Mdn = 21),
completed a packet of questionnaires. All participants had been in-
volved in at least one romantic relationship in their lifetime.
Consistent with Studies 2–4, attachment was assessed using the
ECR (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998), and breakup strategy use
was assessed with the BSQ. We used the same instructions as in
The procedure for Study 5 was nearly identical to Study 4. Partic-
ipants were approached in various locations in a Midwestern
college town (e.g., on campus and downtown) and asked to partic-
ipate in a psychological experiment. After consenting, participants
completed the ECR followed by a distractor. Participants were then
randomly assigned to one of three primes, each consisted of a short
vignette describing either a secure relationship they should imagine
and write about (secure, n= 34), a situation where they achieved a
personal-important goal (positive, n= 33), or a time they did a mun-
dane task with an acquaintance (neutral, n=30). (For a similar use
of primes and more details see Gillath et al., 2009.) Following the
manipulation, participants completed the BSQ, where they were
asked to imagine that they want to terminate a relationship with
a hypothetical partner (not a current or previous one) and to indi-
cate the likelihood of using each strategy. After the BSQ, participants
provided demographics, were debriefed, and thanked.
6.2. Results and discussion
We conducted separate regression analyses for each of the two
strategies affected by the secure prime in Study 4 (avoidance/with-
drawal and positive tone/self-blame). Priming condition was dummy
coded into two variables examining the effects of the secure prime
(D1) and the positive prime (D2). The neutral prime was used as
the reference group in the analyses. Based on the results from
Study 4, hypothetical use of avoidance/withdrawal strategies was
predicted by the prime variables, trait avoidance, and their interac-
tions. The preference for positive tone/self-blame was predicted by
the primes, trait anxiety, and their interactions.
6.2.1. Main effects of the primes
Replicating Study 4 results, the main effect of prime type (se-
cure, positive, and neutral) did not signiﬁcantly predict the use of
T.J. Collins, O. Gillath / Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 210–222 219
avoidance/withdrawal or positive tone/self-blame strategies (both
s = .02). However, there were signiﬁcant interactions between
trait attachment and the security prime.
6.2.2. Security prime and trait attachment avoidance
The tendency to use avoidance/withdrawal strategies was pre-
dicted by the interaction of the security prime dummy variable
and attachment avoidance, b=.38, p= .01;
= .07, p= .01;
F(5,91) = 1.95, p= .09, R
= .10 (see Fig. 2). Replicating Study 4, fol-
lowing the secure prime, trait attachment avoidance was no longer
predictive of the preference for avoidance/withdrawal strategies.
The interaction of the positive prime and attachment avoidance
was not signiﬁcant, b=.10, ns.
6.2.3. Security prime and trait attachment anxiety
The interaction of the security dummy variable and attachment
anxiety signiﬁcantly predicted the preference for positive tone/self-
blame strategies, b=.27, p= .04;
= .04, p= .04; F(5, 91) = 2.80,
p= .02, R
= .13 (see Fig. 2). In line with Study 4, following the se-
cure prime, attachment anxiety no longer increased preference
for positive tone/self-blame strategies. The interaction of the posi-
tive prime dummy variable and attachment anxiety was not signif-
icant, b=.05, ns.
Overall, in Study 5 we demonstrated that the effects are speciﬁc
to attachment security rather than being caused by general positiv-
ity. Furthermore, we were able to replicate the effects of Study 4,
showing that attachment security priming decreases the tendency
of individuals high on avoidance to prefer indirect strategies, and
the tendency of individuals high on anxiety to prefer strategies that
allow for later reconnection.
7. General discussion
Figuring out how to reduce negative outcomes of a relationship
breakup is highly important, yet greatly underrepresented in the
extant literature (Davis et al., 2003). The current project adds sig-
niﬁcantly to existing literature on breakup strategy use and its out-
comes. Speciﬁcally, we identiﬁed seven types of breakup strategies,
and showed that these different strategies affect post-breakup out-
comes. Furthermore, utilizing attachment theoretical framework
provided a better understanding of the use of breakup strategies.
Finally, for the ﬁrst time, we were able to show that the enhance-
ment of attachment security affects the selection of breakup strat-
egies in a hypothetical scenario, in such a way that is likely to
decrease the negative outcomes of the breakup.
There were four goals for the current set of studies: (a) update
and reanalyze the measure used to assess breakup strategy use; (b)
examine the different outcomes associated with each of the strat-
egies identiﬁed; (c) examine the role of attachment anxiety and
avoidance as predictors of the use of each strategy; (d) examine
the effects of the enhancement of attachment security on the ten-
dency to use each strategy. In Study 1, we reexamined the factor
structure of Baxter’s (1982) disengagement strategies measure,
while adding in new aspects (e.g., the use of more recent technol-
ogies). Seven breakup strategies were identiﬁed and validated
across the remaining studies, with reasonable reliability. Study 2
helped shed light on the consequences of strategy use, demonstrat-
ing that breakup strategies signiﬁcantly affect reactions to the
breakup, even when controlling for relationship variables (e.g., sat-
isfaction). More indirect strategies (e.g., avoidance/withdrawal)
were associated with greater distress following the breakup,
whereas more direct strategies (e.g., open confrontation) were per-
ceived as an ideal way of communicating the breakup message. Po-
sitive tone/self-blame strategies were associated with increased
contact following the breakup, including the disengager’s attempts
to ‘‘get back together’’ with the ex-partner.
Studies 3 through 5 provided consistent support to our claim
that attachment dimensions are a valuable predictor of the ten-
dency to use different breakup strategies. In general, we found that
individuals high on attachment avoidance tend to use more indi-
rect strategies (e.g., avoidance/withdrawal) and fewer strategies
that allow for reconnection at a later time (e.g., positive tone/self-
blame). These ﬁndings are is in line with avoidant individuals’ ten-
dency to avoid relational issues, use deactivating strategies when
coping with emotions or relationships, and maintain emotional
distance from close others, especially when under stress (Davis
et al., 2003; Gillath, Sesko, Shaver, & Chun, 2010; Gillath et al.,
2005; Hazan & Shaver, 1994).
Individuals high on attachment anxiety tend to use strategies
that help them satisfy their own needs (e.g., positive tone/self-blame
and de-escalation). Positive tone strategies were previously found to
be associated with seemingly inconsistent outcomes (e.g., more
compassion yet negative outcomes; Lambert & Hughes, 2010;
Sprecher et al., 2010). In the current paper, we found these strate-
gies to be associated with a desire to stay friends with the ex-part-
ner and attempts at ‘‘getting back together’’. This suggests that
individuals high on attachment anxiety, who use these strategies,
do it to potentially maintain close ties with ex-partners, allowing
for later reconnection. This ﬁts the work of Kirkpatrick and Hazan
(1994) on the association between anxiety and the tendency to
have ‘on–off’ relationships. In addition, these ﬁndings are in line
with the tendency of individuals high on anxiety to provide self-fo-
cused caregiving, especially in times of distress (Collins et al., 2006;
Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007a).
In line with the priming literature, changing someone’s state
attachment was found to affect the strategies he or she preferred
to use in a hypothetical breakup. Speciﬁcally, people high on avoid-
ance, who are less likely to be effective caregivers in general
(Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007a), and especially when they are
stressed (Feeney & Collins, 2001; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2005;
Rholes, Simpson, & Oriña, 1999), were most affected by the secu-
rity prime, such that they were less likely to use less compassion-
ate/indirect strategies following the prime. These results ﬁt with
ﬁndings regarding the effects of attachment security priming on
insecure people (e.g., Cassidy et al., 2009; Gillath et al., 2009;
Mikulincer et al., 2005). Similarly, following a security prime, peo-
ple high on attachment anxiety, were less likely to use breakup
strategies that may lead them to cycle in and out of the same
There are a few limitations to the current project. First, the
attachment primes did not play out exactly as we had predicted.
None of the attachment primes had signiﬁcant main effects on
breakup strategy preference. Instead, the security prime interacted
with trait attachment, reducing the tendency of insecure individu-
als to use speciﬁc strategies. These ﬁndings are in line with recent
work indicating that security primes have the most notable effects
on insecure individuals (Cassidy et al., 2009). Additionally,
although the security prime decreased the tendency to use less car-
ing strategies, it did not increase the tendency to use strategies
that reduce post-breakup distress. This ﬁnding may be due to the
ambiguity of what constitutes a more caring breakup strategy. Spe-
ciﬁcally, open confrontation is seen as the most compassionate type
of strategy (Sprecher et al., 2010), however, the message delivered
in that confrontation is unknown – allowing for it to potentially be
less compassionate (Banks et al., 1987). For example, openly
expressing to one’s partner that you are leaving them due to their
weight gain is probably less compassionate than explaining to
220 T.J. Collins, O. Gillath / Journal of Research in Personality 46 (2012) 210–222
one’s partner that you are terminating the relationship because
you want to join a monastery. Additionally, possible ceiling effects
may account for the lack of effects for open confrontation strategies.
The likelihood ratings for this strategy were particularly high, the
mode was the maximum possible value (7) of the scale, and about
40% of participants were within 1 point of the maximum in both
Studies 4 and 5.
Second, only two of the breakup strategies (avoidance/with-
drawal and positive tone/self-blame) were signiﬁcantly affected by
the prime. The lack of effects for the other strategies is likely due
to ﬂoor effects in these strategies (e.g., manipulation and distant/
mediated communication). In both Studies 4 and 5, the mode for
each for these strategies was the lowest possible value (1) with
the majority of the sample being within one point of the minimum
(70% for manipulation and 60% for distant/mediated communication).
Future work can minimize the presence of these ﬂoor and ceiling
effects by examining actual, rather than hypothetical, strategy
use, or can focus on the recipients’ interpretation of the message,
both of which lead to less skewed responses (see Table 3).
An additional limitation of the current project is related to the
reliance on self-report measures and the external validity of the
hypothetical scenarios. Memory recall biases and social desirability
may have affected individuals’ reports on their own as well as their
ex-partners’ previous behavior. In addition, people tend to be very
ineffective at introspection, often constructing causal theories from
information that is most salient and plausible, rather than accu-
rately recalling the causes of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
(Gazzaniga, 2000; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). We used an experimen-
tal manipulation, in Studies 4 and 5, to establish a causal link be-
tween enhancement of attachment security and hypothetical
breakup strategy use. However, the effects of security enhance-
ment on actual breakups are unknown, further research is needed
to examine the ecological validity of these results. Additionally, fu-
ture research should examine the effects of other security enhanc-
ing methods (e.g., subliminal priming) on the use of breakup
Finally, convenience sampling was used as the primary method
of data collection, which resulted in samples that were predomi-
nately college-aged and female. In addition, the majority of the stud-
ies (except Study 2) did not require participants to have ever
experienced a breakup. Hence, some participants may have never
used any breakup strategy. While this project provides a good start-
ing point for work on attachment dimensions and breakup strategy
use, our ability to generalize the results to a broader population is
limited by our sample characteristics. Future work should focus on
breakup strategy use in larger more representative samples.
Despite these limitations the current ﬁndings provide a better
understanding of breakup strategies and their consequences. Fur-
thermore, the ﬁndings shed light on the tendencies of people to
use one strategy over another, and help predict which strategies
people are likely to use. Our ﬁndings provide insight into attach-
ment theory and the impact of trait and state attachment on
romantic relationships termination. Enhancing one’s sense of secu-
rity can reduce the tendency to behave in an uncompassionate or
selﬁsh way, especially among insecure people—who are the most
likely to do so. This has important implications for therapists and
people contemplating a breakup. Feeling secure before or while
breaking up with a partner (e.g., by being reminded of the good
times you had with that partner), can lead people to behave in a
more compassionate way by opting out of using indirect or selﬁsh
breakup strategies. Using more compassionate or direct strategies,
in turn, has the potential to reduce the negative outcomes follow-
ing a breakup (such as depression and violence; Banks et al., 1987;
Lambert & Hughes, 2010; Wilmot, Carbaugh, & Baxter, 1985).
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