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Narratives of intimate relationship breakdowns: “creating meaning” by negotiating network boundaries

Gaëlle Aeby

Research Framework: In a context characterized both by an increase in the number of separations and by the persistence of the model of coupledom, an intimate relationship breakdown is an event that is experienced as a personal and painful ordeal by the individuals concerned. It is particularly the case since it does not only mean the end of a relationship, but also goes hand in hand with a transformation of their personal network.

Objectives: We study how individuals reform the boundaries of their personal network around the people who have provided them with support and recognition. We also look at the negotiations aiming toward a fair distribution – among ex-partners – of these formerly common relationships and at the feelings, notably of injustice, generated by this sharing process.

Methodology: This article is based on a detailed analysis of qualitative interviews conducted with young adults in Switzerland and England who separated from a partner with whom they used to live and had formed a common life project.

Results: We show that there are both gains and losses and that five types of network can be distinguished: friendly expansionfriendly retreatin negotiationparental refuge and new union. This reconfiguration is also accompanied by a narrative that is centred on a concept of justice based on three principles: ownership, equal sharing and degree of guilt.

Conclusions: We reveal that this work on boundaries is both concrete (loss and addition of relationships and reassessment of the degree of investment) and semantic (through the narrative developed). There is both a process of closing boundaries around people who have been supportive and a process of opening up to go beyond the couple relationship.

Contribution: This article is an invitation to reflect on the reconfiguration of the boundaries of intimacy and a new understanding of conjugality, since an intimate relationship breakdown for young adults is often accompanied by hopes for the formation of a new couple.