The Stages of Relationship Breakdown and How to Recognize Them

The breakdown of a relationship – any relationship – is always painful. You can’t expect to invest your hopes and dreams, your emotions and intimacy in another human being without making yourself vulnerable. And that means opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt.

Yet the human condition is such that we have a fundamental need to love and be loved. So if we’re coping with marriage breakdown, even in its early stages, the depth of pain experienced may be overwhelming. It’s easy to delude ourselves into thinking that we will do anything to avert that situation. But the truth is that we may well want to avoid stress at all cost: denying the signs; burying our heads in the sand; worse, turning to drink or infidelity to mask the pain. Consequently, we may, actually, aggravate what appears to us to be a boiling cauldron of indefinable events without cause or effect.

The truth is, however, that there is a predictable pattern in the stages of relationship breakdown. And recognising the sequence of each phase may well prove to be the first step in preventing their escalation. I’m not saying that this can be achieved without help from agencies such as the excellent Care For The Family, but the old truism ‘forewarned is forearmed’ couldn’t be more relevant. Because facing up to the truth at any point opens up the opportunity of arresting further emotional damage. It enables us to make a considered change of direction.


  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 about 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 epitomized 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.

I began by saying that the breakdown of a relationship is always painful. For many reading this today, fresh wounds may bleed, and old scars may be opened. If you need someone to share in your anguish, may I invite you to leave a comment at the end of this article. I promise I will respond to your need in whatever way I can. Or if you have anything to add which might help someone else, please take the trouble to write a short message in the comments box.