What causes relationships to fail? This is a question that many people ask themselves especially when they have been searching to find a long-term partner, one they can trust and believe in, one who will be their best friend and supporter, one who will share their values and their life, and who will stay with them, as the preacher says - for better or for worse. Every relationship is unique and has its own characteristics, history, and journey so it is very hard to be specific. I'll outline two groups of reasons for relationship failure and I will point out how stressful this can be to both parties when the relationship breaks down.
I tend to avoid the first group of reasons because it involves one in making critical judgments about individual psychopathology. It is true there are many people who have personality disorders and mental health issues in our culture; fairly reliable statistics suggest that up to 22% of adults present with a mental health condition each year. Some of these issues are transient, for example, dysthymia or mild depression, anxiety, or sleep disorders; however, some are persistent and can create dysfunctional relationships, for example, clinical depression, substance abuse, alcoholism, sex addiction, schizophrenia, and psychotic disorder.
I don't want to go too far with this line of analysis but let me give you one example of a severe personality disorder and explain some of the behavioral characteristics of an individual with that disorder - antisocial personality disorder. These people can appear to be charming, engaging, witty, and exciting but there are two different layers of this individual and the underneath layer is grimy and unpleasant. A person with this disorder may have little sense of right or wrong, no sense of morality or ethics, is more motivated by the end than the means, will lie, demean, humiliate, and blame others, is impulsive, and can be dangerous. Unfortunately, they are so good at covering their disorder that when a person 'falls in love' with them, the unsuspecting partner either fails to see the personality flaws or compensates and makes excuses for them. In the long run, like a person with alcohol, sex addiction, or inability to cope with reality, the person with the antisocial personality disorder will manage to destroy either or both the partner and the relationship.
Obviously, the message for anyone in a relationship with an individual with significant mental health issues is to be very clear about their responsibilities. There are too many documented cases, particularly of women, who wish to be Mother Therese who want to 'fix' this person's problems. We only have to look at the number of women who marry men on death row to realize that many women want to be someone's savior. You have to decide if you want to assume this burden and responsibility.
But let's get more practical and talk about relationships in which both parties are fairly mentally healthy but the relationships still fail. Let's begin with one of my four categories of relationship breakdown: soft or unintentional causes. Sometimes we get so carried away and preoccupied with our work that we fail to think about and put energy into our relationship. Sometimes we discover after a short period of time that we have entirely different values and after the honeymoon period is ended we realize we have incompatible worldviews. Sometimes the issue is around a very thorny problem - having children. Some relationships end simply because of incompatible goals about potential parenthood.
My second category of relationship breakdowns is personal style. I'm amused by the research which suggests that women use 22-25,000 words a day and men use 7-10,000 words a day. You often have different verbal styles between people and this can create difficulties. People have different personal disclosure styles as well; some people wear their hearts on their sleeves while others are very private, even secretive. Some people have a personal style which prevents them from being forgiving; they are very tolerant of their partner's lapses and mistakes, while others begrudgingly forgive but rarely forget. Some people are very positive and affirming while others are negative and provide very little positive reinforcement. Some people willingly give affection while others regard affection as a scarce resource and are unwilling to share it. Some people are excessively jealous and this can cause severe relationship difficulties.
My third group is character flaws and sometimes these are more likely to cause a breakdown than anything else. In my last article I talked about the difference between Takers and Givers. Some people are plain lazy and never uphold their end of the responsibilities. In clinical sessions and presentations, I've often said that maturation is a major problem in relationship failure. New research suggests that there are different levels of maturation in female and male brains, the male forebrain not being completely developed until the person is about 26 or 27 years of age. In my long experience, I've noted that some men extend their adolescence and postpone adulthood until they're about 30; as a consequence they are either unable or unwilling to make commitments and make mature judgments. Some men want a mother and a servant in their partner; some women want daddy and a bankroll. Some people are driven by negative feelings; others are mean with money and make this a serious issue in the relationship.
My final group of problems relate to threats and overt physical behavior. Unfortunately, in my experience in preparing police officers to implement the law about policing domestic violence, I have become very aware of how partners can be intimidated by a verbally or physically abusive partner. Constant verbal denigration, constant physical threats or actual physical violence, constant threats over security, for example, taking the house and all the money or breaking up the relationship, are all potent mechanisms to end a relationship.
Yes, I know, this article is a little depressing and I know I should be more positive and give more practical advice but unfortunately what I've described is reality in some relationships. It is helpful for all of us to understand those factors which are threats to healthy, nurturing relationship. Being informed places us in a better position to make sound decisions and to facilitate strategies for improving relationships.
The stresses that emerge from the relationship breakdown factors that I have described include: elevated feelings of insecurity, fear of physical or emotional harm, feelings of failure if we are unable to effectively negotiate a positive relationship, stress from guilt for one reason or another, stress because we are afraid of other people will think we are a failure, and stress from severe disappointment and letdowns. It is wise to be aware that it is human to continue to be hopeful and positive. If your life circumstances and potential are not compromised or threatened, you should do everything you can to build the healthy relationships that you deserve; the obverse applies, if your life opportunities and your personal safety and well-being are compromised - get out of the relationship.
In my next article I'm going to describe how to assess when you have reached the end of relationship.