What causes relationship failure?

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What causes relationship failure? Do you wonder how many serious ruptures before your relationship is beyond repair? In other words, when is it time to give up?  The answer is not straight forward. Here is an analogy to demonstrate the complexities of such a situation.

Say you have a garden, with a patch of lawn/turf that gets a lot of traffic. (This is the vulnerable part of your relationship.) The kids take a shortcut on the way to the front door.  You take a shortcut on the way to the car.  The dog has a favourite circuit of the yard, which includes that particular patch of grass. The habits of life create a lot of wear-and-tear for that patch.

At first, nothing much seems to happen. But underneath the grass, the soil is compacting, and water and nutrients can’t get down to the roots. The shoots that do emerge, brave as they are, are too week to sustain further incursions of boots, paws, bike-tyres or the like. The ultimate result is bare ground.  No grass.

What I am saying is that relationship failure is often gradual and insidious.

How many serious ruptures leads to relationship failure? In other words, when is it time to give up?

Four things are happening, whether we are talking about relationship failure or the turf. Let’s spell this out:

  1. Damage is occurring long before it is evident. Read “How to build trust as a couple.”
  2. There is not enough recovery time between wear-and-tear episodes on the grass.
  3. Adequate repairs are not being made.  In the case of our grass, adequate repairs would be aerating the soil, nutrients and water.
  4. The cause of the wear-and-tear on our grass is not being addressed, that is, in this case, excessive traffic, which is beyond the capacity of that grass to repair.  Perhaps ANY grass. The habit patterns that lead to the damage have not been identified and changed. 

Before we apply this to your relationship – perhaps you are already headed there – let’s keep it simple for a moment longer, with the grass.

First of all, recovery time. 

In certain seasons, grass recovers more slowly than others, for example, Winter. Certain kinds of turf do better with recovery than do others – ask the greens manager at your local Golf Club and he or she will know all about this.

Sometimes all that is needed for your poor patch of grass is a long spell without wear and tear. Recovery happens by itself. You would have seen patches of grass in the local park, cordoned off, so it can do this self-recovery, this rehabilitation, this rest. Read this Insight on the impact of fatigue on your relationship. And this one on using holiday time to ease up on each other and heal and repair.

How much water, nutrients and aeration would be needed to bring our patch back to good health? How often? Well, it depends on the patch, the season, the level of damage, the time over which the damage has occurred, to name a few variables.

Secondly, let’s look at adequate repairs.

In order to know what repairs to make, you would pay attention to all of the unique factors about your turf. A generic solution might miss the mark completely.

Thirdly, address the cause

The cause of the dead grass needs to be determined, and action taken. What comes to mind? Basically, something – or someone – needs to change.

Perhaps remember to go along the path, instead of the short-cut to the car?  Park the car in a different place?

Create a barrier so the dog does a different circuit of the yard?

Train the kids to go the long way to the front door – I can hear the complaints already! 

Yes, all possible. Thinking further, you might decide to do something more durable with that patch, if the behaviour changes mentioned are unlikely to stick.  Perhaps a radical change is required; is it the ideal place for a new path or paved feature?

What we want to approach here is the very serious subject of what leads to relationship failure, when it no longer sustains growth, just like the turf. Put another way, how can you sustain your relationship through and beyond inevitable ruptures? How can you repair when the fabric of your relationship has worn thin?

The good news is that relationships are generally MORE durable than the turf. Yes, truly – read on!

How many serious ruptures does it take before your relationship falters?

What defines a rupture?

Before I go to durability, I need to define the nature of the rupture. John Gottman uses the term “rupture” to describe the painful episodes of disagreement and disharmony in any relationship. That is the fights, betrayal of trust, and broken agreements. Some ruptures are very severe, others are trivial, and others are small but repeated until they wear you down. 

If you discover your partner is guilty of some criminal activity, this deals a heavy blow to your relationship and to your ability to respect your partner.

Discovery of infidelity will shake your trust and sense of safety, and will require sustained and intelligent repairs by both partners in order to recover.

Financial betrayal, especially if repeated, severely tarnishes your present stability and your future plans as a couple. Repeatedly being in debt wears the fabric of a relationship very thin.

Domestic violence is a particular rupture that is in a category of its own, and I deal with that in a separate Insight. Continual criticism and contempt are like white-ants that eat away at your relationship – eventually, there will be nothing left.

How to prevent relationship failure? How much attunement makes your relationship durable?

The big question is how much harmony or attunement does it take to sustain your particular relationship? and how much repair and re-attunement?

Well, the Gottman’s say the relationship will be intact when you and your partner achieve attunement only 10% of the time. I disagree – it is much more complicated than that. The amount of attunement you and your partner need to sustain a lasting happy relationship depends on the attachment style of both of you. It also depends on the capacity of both of you to differentiate. And furthermore, if there is a trauma history for either of you. It also depends on how much else is going on in other aspects of your lives. Sick children? Troubles at work? Redundancy?

I liken this to the idea I presented above, that turf does not recover well in certain seasons, such as Winter, and certain types of turf have more resilience than others. Just like people.

So, you can probably get by with 10% attunement when your differentiation is well-developed. And when you and your partner are cruising through a really enjoyable phase of your lives. (Although, paradoxically, you want to create more!) However, you probably need good attunement for at least 50% of the time if you both have insecure attachment styles. Or if you rely on the bonding aspect of your relationship for feeling good about yourself. (Paradoxically, if both of you have an avoidant attachment style, then you don’t expect attunement at all! More on attachment styles here.)

Repairing ruptures – the building – of trust

In another Insight, I talk about trust in depth.  Here, I will be brief and mention the 3 phases of a relationship as proposed by the Gottmans. 

These phases are:

  1. Limerance or falling in love. This requires no effort.  Nature does it for you!
  2. Building or failing to build trust over time – are you there for me?
  3. Commitment for a lifetime, based on the building of trust.

You will see that the second stage of a relationship is about testing out your ability to trust and how trustworthy your partner is proving to be. This takes time, a lot of time.  Years, usually. How this trust-building process goes provides the basis for the future relationship

I discuss both the subtle and obvious erosions of trust in this Insight. In the meanwhile, your undermine your relationship when you:

  1. Make negative comparisons of your partner with other people who you idealize, or wish your partner was like.
  2. Consistently turn away from opportunities to connect with your partner.
  3. Stop acknowledging and talking about your feelings of unhappiness with your partner.

Let’s return to my original question: How many serious ruptures does it take before your relationship is beyond repair? In other words, when is it time to give up? 

Essentially, my answer is: How seriously do you want to invest in repairs, in (re)building trust, in identifying the underlying causes of the ruptures, in allowing for recovery time, and making the changes that will take the stress off the vulnerable, threadbare patches of your relationship?

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