Relationship breakdown

Understanding relationship breakdown

Relationship breakdown can be a complex, distressing experience. This article explores the warning signals of breakdown, and what you can do about them. First understanding the three stages that precede separation or divorce; looking out for signs that your partnership is in trouble; then looking at ways in which you can repair your relationship – either on your own or in couple therapy.

Stages of relationship breakdown

In general there are three stages that precede break-up:

  • Disenchantment
  • Repetitive frustration
  • Despair


This should not be confused with disappointment. After the initial honeymoon period is over partners gradually come to see that their idealised lover is a human being with weaknesses, flaws and off-putting habits. So much is true, and is a hurdle to be overcome in building any long-term relationship. If love is strong enough then it is possible to work through your differences. The same is true in disagreements about lifestyle and having children; those, too will have to be resolved through negotiation and compromise – unless the disagreements are profound, in which case the relationship will come to a natural end.

Disenchantment is more disturbing than that. It refers to perceived flaws that threaten the relationship. Major flaws might include alcohol/drug abuse, dishonesty, promiscuity or financial chicanery. Lesser flaws might include possessiveness, control-freakery, disloyalty, or prioritising work and other people over the relationship.

At this stage it is still possible to work through perceived problems through mutual honesty and commitment.

Repetitive frustration

The second stage arises when perceived flaws are not addressed or ignored. Or when one partner promises to make changes but fails to do so. As unwanted incidents multiply one (or both) partners draw away from each other. The most common signs of withdrawal are discussed below.

At this stage, too, salvage is still possible. Although by now it will take a lot more work, and couple therapy should be considered seriously.


In this final stage one, or even both partners, have given up hope that the relationship can stand. Either may be making active plans to leave the relationship, or it may be they have started to look elsewhere for intimacy. For some the only reason for staying on is for the sake of children, or for financial reasons.

At this stage it may be too late. If the relationship is to be repaired then a period of separation may be advisable.

A common mistake many couples make is to enter couple therapy when the relationship is at breaking point, when it might have been advisable to go at an earlier stage.

Warning signs your relationship is in trouble

In 1994 John Gottman published research on early signs of relationship breakdown that created a journalistic sensation. In it he claimed that he could predict with 93% accuracy which couples would stay together, and which would not based on watching short video interviews of each couple together.

Gottman pointed to minute verbal and non-verbal behaviours that indicated the couple were estranged. These included ignoring bids for attention; critical comments; mockery; blaming; dismissive gestures; and withdrawal from the conversation (sometimes marked by body language) . Later on Gottman summarised these behaviours under four headings:


Attacking partners for their opinions, behaviour or attitudes,


Using verbal insults, or employing facial expressions and hand gestures to belittle the partner.


Blame-shifting in which one partner portrays the other as the source of the problem.


Passive-aggressive behaviour; shutting down, withdrawing or sulking.

To these four signs three more may be added that would not show up in a short video interview.

Constant arguments

These must be distinguished from voicing disagreements, which can be healthy. Daily arguments (or arguments more than 2/3 times a week) that involve shouting and go nowhere are a bad sign.

Loss of sexual intimacy

To be distinguished from reduced intimacy, which may be due to other factors such as child care. A loss of sexual interest in your partner (not linked to depression or sexual dysfunction) is a major warning sign of relationship breakdown.


This refers to one partner frequently making undisclosed plans (e.g. going out with friends, or organising a trip) that don’t involve the other.

Repairing relationship breakdown

Talking through problems should take place as soon as any of the warning signs above appear. The later you leave it the harder repair work becomes.

If you want to repair a relationship you have to ask yourself how much you want it. Repair can be a lengthy, painful process in which infinite forgiveness and patience are required. A related question to ask yourself is how much you are willing to change in order to retrieve the relationship. This means taking ownership for your own part in the breakdown. Ultimately, your answers come down to how much you love your partner, and how much you are willing to sacrifice.

If both parties have answered theses hard questions you may be ready to talk, The first thing to do (if it is not clear already) is to identify the reasons for the breach. Neglect? Aggressive behaviour? Poor contributions? Possessiveness? Irresponsibility? Whatever the problem, speak about it as objectively as you can, without bitterness. If problems are more serious (e.g. abuse, addiction, infidelity) the partner should consider taking individual therapy while reconciliation takes place.

If you are untrained in communication skills it can be useful to consult tried-and-rested approaches such as Non-Violent Communication (NVC).

Choose a neutral venue for your conversations. Do not use your home, as people are likely to become more aggressive or defensive when speaking about threatening matters inside their ‘territory’.

When speaking show your vulnerability, and avoid excuses. Be honest about your mistakes and ask for forgiveness.

When you are the listener it can be good to use active listening techniques and display empathy for your partner’s thoughts, feelings and wishes.

When sharing perspectives about the conflict between you, focus on your partner’s intentions rather than their spoken words and actions. For example, a common reason why some people get angry is because they feel hurt.

Be clear about what it is you want from each other. Wherever possible express goals in terms of what you want to see, feel and hear – rather than in terms of what you don’t want. Focus on solutions rather than problems.

Be patient about this process, and with setbacks. Recognise, also, that it can take some time before trust is restored.

If, despite your best efforts, reconciliation proves difficult, then consider couple therapy. For advice on solution-focused brief therapy for couples see this link here.

For tips on building healthy relationships see this blog article here

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