What Causes Relationships to End in Failure?

Many things that break up relationships don’t seem like a big deal at the time. They can come in “petty” fights too small to threaten something as important as your marriage.

But in the long run, these small disagreements can become a real threat. They can be more emotional than you might think, making you think about love, safety, trust, and respect for your partner. If you don’t handle these “small” disagreements with care, they can hurt your relationship and cause you to lose what you value most.

Here are some signs of the destructive conflict cycle that leads to broken relationships. By breaking these common patterns, you and your partner can start to deal with conflict in a way that helps you grow together, not apart.

Why relationships don’t work: being defensive

Suppose your spouse gets enraged about something that doesn’t appear to be all that significant to you. You might have worn your shoes in the house even though they told you not to, or you might have been ten minutes late to dinner.

How do you feel about their anger? Do you feel like you’re being punished too much for something that doesn’t matter much, given how much you do for your partner daily? Do you remind them of all the things you’ve given up for them, the relationship, or the things you don’t like about them?

That’s being defensive, which is a normal response to feeling attacked or criticized. We can’t hear the other person very well when we get defensive. We’re too busy trying to make them see things from our point of view to hear the hurt or pain behind their complaints because what they say threatens us.

You get stuck when one person is angry and the other is defensive. You’re stuck in a stalemate of “attack” and “counterattack,” so you can’t move forward and fix the rift that’s opened up between you and learn more about each other. Your partner gets the message that you will be mean to them if they are upset. Eventually, they won’t come to you with problems anymore, and your anger will grow.

So, what can you do to stop being defensive? Responsibility. When your partner is mad at you, take responsibility for what you did to cause the fight. That doesn’t mean you should always let them “win” or take the blame when it’s not yours. But admit when you’re wrong and ask how they feel about what’s happening. You’ll be able to have a real conversation and solve small problems before they get worse.

Emotional invalidation is a big reason

Invalidation of feelings is another common reason why relationships end. When we emotionally invalidate our partners, we might agree that we were late or did wear our shoes in the house, but we might not agree with how they feel about it. We might tell them they’re being too dramatic or don’t know why they’re so upset.

A lot of things get invalidated. I bet you and your partner have invalidated each other at some point in your relationship. Not being valid doesn’t make you a bad person (or a gaslighter, for that matter). Most of us don’t even realize when we’re invalidating. We usually think we’re helpful when we tell our partners to let go of bad feelings or see things from a different, more positive point of view.

But constant emotional invalidation gives your partner the impression that you don’t care about what they’re going through, that you don’t take their feelings seriously, and that it’s pointless to try to solve problems with you because you’ll brush them off. If your partner starts to expect you to make them feel bad, they may pull away from the relationship. In the long run, this will break your connection.

Listen to your partner without trying to “fix” their problems or talk them out of their point of view. This will help you avoid invalidating them. Instead of trying to convince them that the way they feel isn’t right, try to accept their feelings for what they are. I use the word “practice” here because validating is a habit we all must work hard to build.

Broken trust

When small fights turn into defensiveness and invalidation, they hurt your relationship with your partner. They lead to broken trust, ruining even the most loving relationships.

If you tell your partner their feelings and worries aren’t important or overblown, they will stop trusting you over time. The above statement isn’t dramatic in any way. They will learn that you are not an emotionally safe person who will treat their needs, feelings, and point of view as valid and important. And we need that from our partners more than anything else in the world.

When your partner stops trusting you, what happens? They stop opening up to you and leaning on you when they need help. They might stop trying to connect with you on a deep emotional level and settle for a superficial relationship that makes you both feel lonely and empty. They won’t think that you have good intentions, and as time goes on, disagreements will get worse and hurt your relationship more. If nothing changes, your relationship will fall apart in the long run.

So, once trust has been broken, how do you fix it? You can start by listening to your partner, validating their feelings, understanding what they’re going through, and taking responsibility for your part in a fight instead of getting defensive.

All of this might sound like I’m telling you to give in to your partner or to put their needs, rights, and feelings ahead of your own. That’s not true. When you’re upset, you deserve to be heard, cared about, and considered valid. But you won’t get that by being right or “winning” the argument. You can get it by being kind and generous to your partner, making them more likely to be kind and generous to you.

Why some marriages work and some don’t

From my many years as a married person and a marriage counselor, if I could give every couple one piece of advice, it would be this: when marriages fail, it’s usually not in a high-drama, crash-and-burn way. Couples who come to my office rarely break up in ways that make for interesting TV plots.

Instead, marriages fail when two people who love each other don’t have the skills to deal with everyday conflicts in a healthy, supportive way that helps their relationship grow. Over time, these fights hurt their relationships to the point where they can’t be fixed or until someone gives up on the relationship.

But you can learn these skills, making your relationship stronger and healthier. I hope this narrative provided you with some helpful starting points.