Why do people who stop being a couple, "break up"? It seems like it would make more sense to say "break down". Does anyone know why this is?

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    I doubt there is a "logical" reason - language isn't necessarily logical. But there is a long history of using "break up" to refer to anything that breaks into pieces - ships, sticks, crackers, etc. On the other hand, "break down" usually refers to something that simply stops working, due to mechanical failure for instance, and for people it usually means a loss of emotional control. I guess it makes a little more sense to think of the couple breaking into (two) pieces, instead of simply failing to function at all. Sep 7 '15 at 23:56
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    We could say: The relationship broke down, so the couple broke up.
    – J.R.
    Sep 8 '15 at 2:15

Break down and break up are two different phrases with slightly different meanings. although both may be used to within the context of relationships, they're used in different ways. Perhaps it will help if I explain the origins of the phrases.

Break Down

This means to stop working, typically referring to a complex machine.

My car broke down on the M25 Motorway last night. It took me hours to get home

Sometimes we will use it to talk about a relationship stopping working too: mostly in this usage we are talking about the interaction, trust, love, and communication between the people breaking down. It usually implies that the relationship ending wasn't anyone's fault, and it was just the natural end of the relationship.

It does not always mean that the relationship ended instantly, and is more about the relationship problems, although it usually does indicate a break up which may or may not come later.

It describes the process of a relationship ending, not the actual event.

After I lost my job my first marriage broke down.

It will tend to be used about more serious, adult relationships - you are more likely to hear about a marriage breaking down, rather than the relationship between a teen couple.

Break up

This is the act of a relationship ending, and is the equivalent of a marriage divorce.

It comes from a more literal phrase 'to break up', meaning to physically separate into smaller pieces.

The spaceship entered the atmosphere and began to break up

This is used in a more literal sense than 'break down' in that it is talking about two people in one couple (larger 'object') separating into two smaller, separate objects (themselves).

Me and my boyfriend broke up when I saw him kissing Suzy after prom.

It may be used about both serious, mature, and less serious relationships, but is more often used regarding younger relationships.

  • 1
    After my relationship broke up I had a breakdown. :P Sep 8 '15 at 6:05
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    "My boyfriend and I.. " 😁 Sep 8 '15 at 8:35
  • Yes, break down 'referring to a complex machine' is a good description, especially when applied to the human brain. Sep 8 '15 at 10:00
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    James, in informal speech 'Me and whoever' has long become acceptable usage. I think we've gotten over that one now :)
    – Jon Story
    Sep 8 '15 at 10:52

"to break up" when referring to the relationship of a couple is a kind of metaphor, an image of comparison. When you break up a nut, the two parts of the shell come apart and are no longer connected. The "up" in this use comes near "apart/asunder".


A non-authoritative answer may be because of how one breaks, for example, spaghetti. The ends go down (usually) and the "break" goes "up".

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