How To Recognise The Signs Of Relationship Breakdown

Posted at 00:00am on 11th December 2008

Boy, did my last post on Children In Divorce & Separation provoke a response! Not in comments, because it’s a painful subject; but in more hits on my website than ever before. There's obviously a lot of hurt out there, especially at this time of year.

That article dealt with the effects of family breakdown on children – in other words, after the event. So I’m going to follow up with a couple of ‘before the event’ articles, on ways to avoid stress. Hopefully, a few simple strategies should tide you over the holiday period until you can seek outside help. First, though, we need to understand the various stages of relationship breakdown.


  1. Conflict: Most of us have our ups and downs when it comes to our closest relationships. The euphoria of the early years of marriage rarely lasts beyond childbearing years (there’s some speculation on whether this ‘high’ is nature’s way of getting us to procreate) and it’s when we have dependent children that we’re most likely to experience conflict. The combination of this change in the way we love one another and the demands of raising a family put pressure on our relationships which were absent in the early years. Many couples cope with the conflict; some even thrive on it; others crumble.
  2. Misunderstanding: ‘My wife doesn’t understand me,’ must be the most clichéd statement ever. But the biggest misconception, or misunderstanding, is to think that we can ‘make’ our spouse understand us by constant repetition. The truth is that in the early stages of our relationship – the elation of new love – we are so tuned into the attributes that attract us to one another, that we may have been blind to the differences that were there all along, but which now repel us. Additionally, the pressures of raising a family may throw up a disparity in our values and standards of behaviour – qualities which have not, until now, been evident. At this point, we’re open to the temptation of flirtation, flattery and infidelity.
  3. Contempt: As the pressures mount and the sense of being misunderstood increases, we become filled with disdain for one another. Where once we felt a pride and admiration in our spouse’s abilities, now we see only their faults. Dislike leads to derision; scorn to contempt; dislike to loathing. He/she can’t even . . . we think. And those thoughts rapidly turn to vocal expression. The screaming matches begin, and the children fear for their future.
  4. Defensiveness: This may manifest itself in self-pity and a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. What’s the point, we think? All the energy that epitomised the conflict and contempt stages drains away, leaving us feeling as if we’re dragging ourselves upstream through a torrent of treacle. All we experience is pain. At this stage we may feel overwhelmed; become clinically depressed.
  5. Loss of Trust: Our imaginations run riot: we see betrayal everywhere around us. The overtime at work, the unanswered mobile telephone calls, the secretive text-messaging – everything becomes, potentially, an act of treachery. We rifle through pockets, bank statements, telephone bills. Sadly, our mistrust may not be misplaced.
  6. Self-protection: We may, if we haven’t gone under in Stage 4, begin to withdraw from the relationship completely, avoiding any attempt at communication. Separate bedrooms; speaking to one another through the children, ‘tell your mother . . .’; and social detachment as each pursues their own interests may follow. The relationship, unless drastic action is taken, is in terminal decline.

Because this is such a painful subject, and because Christmas puts such pressures on families, I’m going to keep this short, and will suspend all other articles until we’ve dealt with this subject. My next article will be on Ways To Avoid Stress & The Breakdown of A Relationship At Christmas.

In the meantime, if you need someone to share in your pain, do leave a comment at the end of this Post. I promise to respond. Or if you have anything to add which might help someone else, please take the trouble to write a short message below. See you soon.

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