The emotional stages of a marriage breakdown

Updated February 21, 2017

Like a leaf floating down a stream, relationships are always moving. Relationships are either growing as married spouses learn more about each other, or marriages are slowly breaking down as the spouses experience unresolved conflict that leads to distrust and the inability to forgive. When rolling downhill, marital breakdowns travel through a few recognisable steps.

Unresolved Conflict

Every marriage relationship involves conflict. Some conflicts arise from honest misunderstandings or poor communication. Although all married couples experience conflict at varying degrees, some spouses are able to resolve their conflict, or agree to disagree. Other sets of spouses are unable to resolve their conflict, find a middle ground or learn from their mistakes. Married couples whose relationship moves toward breakdown get into trouble when they find that they cannot resolve or compromise their disagreements to both spouse's satisfaction.

Feelings of Contempt

Conflict alone doesn't have to lead toward marital breakdown. However, unresolved conflict will often lead to couples losing respect for each other. Once a level of contempt sets into the couple's relationship, it can poison other areas of the bond that are positive and healthy. Once spouses begin to hold contempt for one another, the level of contempt becomes a predictor of a future relationship breakdown. The contempt is not always displayed overtly, but rather it is communicated via body language and posture. Whether displayed openly or not, contempt will erode the foundations of trust and respect that are needed for a healthy relationship.

Increasingly Defensive Posture

When couples become flooded with negative emotions, or experience the ongoing stress of never coming to a positive resolution of their conflicts, individual spouses are likely to take increasingly defensive emotional postures. A defensive emotional posture is displayed by an unwillingness to work toward compromise --- or even discuss the conflict at hand. The partners are overwhelmed, and their emotional resources are spent defending themselves from a perceived emotionally hostile environment rather than working toward positive relational growth.

Erosion of Trust

Once spouses retreat into an increasingly defensive posture inside their emotional bunker, the next step is an overall erosion of trust. Behind their defensive walls, the partners live in a vacuum, with no ongoing evidence of their partner's concern for them. From this position, the partners disengage. The long-term cost of the unresolved conflict and expressed contempt creates an inability to trust the other person.

Finding Outside Comfort

At this point, partners re-evaluate their goals and internally decide whether their goals are compatible with those of their spouse. Outside of a framework that involves communication, emotional connection and demonstrations of mutual respect and value, small incompatibilities seem insurmountable. From this point, spouses choose to pursue other interests and/or other relationships as an alternative to resolving the existing conflict.

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About the Author

Since 2003, Timothy Burns' writing has appeared in magazines, management and leadership papers. He has contributed to nationally published books and he leads the Word Weavers of West Michigan writers' group. Burns wrote "Forged in the Fire" in 2004, and has published numerous articles online. As a trained conference speaker, Burns speaks nationally on the art, science and inspiration of freelance writing.