A marriage is different to a relationship. A marriage is a legally recognised union between two people that establishes the rights and obligations between them.
A relationship is the combination of (1) the patterns that develop between two people, which result in specific behaviours, habits and rituals; (2) the feelings and emotions that the individuals have for each other and the way in which these are expressed and lived in the relationship; and (3) the explicit or implicit contract or agreement that defines the relationship.
Relationships are based on proximity between, for example, colleagues and neighbours; by family ties, which include immediate and extended family; and on choice. Friendships and love relationships in Western culture are relationships of choice. This means that if the relationship is dysfunctional and makes us unhappy, we have the choice to leave.
In all marriages there is a relationship, and it is the breakdown of the relationship that brings about the failure of the marriage.
Broadly speaking, relationships differ in worth and range from quality relationships to toxic ones. In descending order, this is how they differ in significance:
In a quality relationship the individuals trust and respect each other, their communication is open and honest, they have a deep commitment to each other and their union is viewed as a partnership.
In a functional relationship there is trust, respect and cooperation between the individuals, their communication is constructive and they are committed to maintaining their relationship because they value it.
A cordial relationship is based on common goals and a modicum of respect. The parties tend to be individually focussed, staying in and maintaining the relationship because it suits them. As such, communication is seen as necessary. These relationships are static as neither party feels the need to invest in them or grow them.
Adversarial relationships are acrimonious. There is disrespect and distrust between the parties, who are competitive and oppositional in their dealings with each other. There is little communication in such relationships.
Toxic relationships are characterised by the disregard and dislike the parties have for each other, and are marred by conflict, hostility and sabotage. In these relationships the aim of the parties is to annihilate each other.
The question is: how does a relationship that started out as a quality relationship descend into an adversarial or toxic one?
To answer this question we have to look at (1) what people want from relationships, (2) what the common issues are that couples in relationships have to deal with, and (3) how they succeed or fail at addressing these.
Laws of attraction
People want to be with people to whom they are attracted. Relationships are often based on the balancing of opposites. Research has shown that we are biologically programmed to be attracted to a person who is genetically very different from us. Most relationships are also a ‘marriage’ of two opposing temperaments.
The similarities we look for in a partner, on the other hand, relate to their level of education, attractiveness, culture and religion.
This combination of differences and similarities results in a unique mix of needs and wants that gives each relationship its particular character.
Needs and wants
Needs and wants are directed by different mechanisms in relationships. The needs we pour into our relationships stem from our primary emotional wishes and desires. These are often not completely conscious and are therefore frequently unacknowledged. Our needs are driven by the heart, and the need for physical and emotional intimacy is rooted in our desire for love, validation, acknowledgement, appreciation and the wish to be good enough.
The wants we bring to a relationship are motivated by the head. These are more conscious and are often informed by our culture. As such, they include the desire to be married and, in Western cultures, for that relationship to be monogamous. This is expected to give the relationship a solid foundation and hence to provide some safety and predictability. We also want status, a certain lifestyle and a certain standard of living.
A relationship is a transaction between two people. In order for a person to want to be in a relationship and to work at it - or fight for it - the value they receive from being in that relationship (the sum of needs and wants) must exceed the price they are paying to be in it (the compromises required to accommodate the partner’s needs and wants). The value/cost ratio reflects the level of satisfaction the person experiences in relation to the compromises they feel they have to make.
Value of the relationship < Price of being in the relationship
Similarly, for a person to be happy in a relationship, what they experience in, or receive from, that relationship must by-and-large meet their expectations.
When two people come together, they unwittingly start working at what they would like the relationship to look like and how they would like it to function. They are essentially starting to negotiate a relationship contract. Who does what - and when and how it is done - soon develops into a set of rights, privileges, responsibilities and obligations which, over time, become accepted as the ‘rules’ of the relationship.
As the relationship starts taking shape, boundaries begin to form that create a relationship space which is unique to that specific relationship. The space and boundaries that the partners negotiate encompass all of the various transactions that have taken place between them, reflecting where relevant aspects of their lives and other interested parties are placed within that space.
Like most things in life, relationships go through various stages and cycles.
The ‘emotional’ stage a relationship goes through is closely linked to the closeness and/or distance partners experience in the relationship.
When two people meet and fall in love, their desire to be with the other person initially overrides their need for independence. At this romantic love stage, the boundaries between the pair are blurred and they enter a co-dependent phase in which their sense of self and well-being is usurped by their need to be with the other. This stage is suffocating, with little growth beyond what is actually happening in the relationship. This means that the partners find a fit and invest all of their energy in maintaining the relationship.
Although such co-dependence can persist for quite some time, this stage is generally followed by a conscious need in both parties to gain some of their ‘lost’ independence. Friends and hobbies that were neglected because of wanting to give their partner undivided attention are rediscovered and prioritised once more. Personality traits that were suppressed and sublimated because of a fear of 'rocking the boat' are allowed to surface again.
This process places strain on the relationship because the shift is not necessarily smooth and often takes place in a push-pull way. If one partner acts too independently, the other feels relegated to a lesser position, which results in the first doing all they can to reel the other partner in again.
They move back and forth in this way until each builds up enough trust to be able to respect their partner’s need for independence - and until they come to understand that, in a close relationship, a modicum of independence is necessary. Finally, this dance leads them to reach a position of inter-dependence with a clearly defined shared space and enough room for each person to maintain their identity and some independence.
Relationships are also affected by different life stages. The honeymoon stage, for instance, is very different to the career-building stage. When the latter coincides with the arrival of children, the relationship undergoes huge stress as the needs of the partners are temporarily overtaken by the more urgent attention that a demanding career or young children claim. Most couples find it difficult to regain their initial connection during and after this phase, with emotional and physical intimacy often paying the price. Other stages that impact on a marital relationship are when the children leave home and retirement.
Levels of a relationship: Success or failure in addressing the issues
Foundation the level of commitment, expectations and family
how safe the couple feels
In dealing with a specific issue, it is important to deal with it on the appropriate level and not to drag a content issue down to the foundation level.
For example, if a couple has a disagreement about who is responsible for getting up to attend to the baby over weekends (content), it quickly spirals down to whose load is heavier and who sacrifices the most in the relationship (dynamic), culminating in what each is getting out of the relationship and whether they actually want to be in the relationship (foundation).
The patterns that develop in a long-term relationship are played out against the backdrop of a series of life events, which can neither be predicted nor controlled. As a result, a long-term relationship is a journey without a clearly defined destination; a journey that is made up of repetitive cycles.
These cycles mostly follow a predictable pattern which, in turn, is the consequence of that relationship’s particular dynamic. The most widespread one is the life-death-life cycle.
Any relationship will continue growing until it reaches a point at which the growth starts to level off. This is the 'life' part of the cycle. As the growth levels off, the relationship may stabilise for a while until a ‘death’ occurs. A death is a loss, disillusionment or reality-check that disrupts the initial development of the relationship and bends the growth curve in a downward direction.
As the result of a death, the relationship will either be terminated or the couple will manage to work through it and, in so doing, they will create new life. This will ultimately enrich the relationship. It will give it more depth and make it more resilient. Eventually, such growth will reach a saturation point. It will peter out and lead to a death of some kind again.
Big deaths - events or issues that threaten the existence of the relationship - are hard to deal with. Typical examples include when trust is broken because of infidelity, when there is severe distancing due to life issues not dealt with appropriately and in a timely manner, or because of a dysfunctional pattern that cannot be contained any more.
As the relationship moves through different stages and cycles the couple has to renegotiate the relationship contract. If this negotiation is brought about by a serious death it will be a difficult process that may change the attitude of one or both of the partners. As more and more baggage piles up over time, the re-negotiation process becomes exceedingly difficult, and often a couple’s only way forward is to compromise even more or exit the relationship.
Most relationship negotiations reflect an interesting dialectic between more-of-the-same and change. On the one hand they recycle and get caught up in redundant patterns, which become a negative comfort zone. A pattern becomes redundant when the original purpose it served is long gone, but the couple nevertheless continues to play it out without being aware of it. When this happens the pattern has developed a life of its own and becomes a self-maintaining mechanism.
On the flipside of such perpetual patterns is the individuals’ need for change. Their need to do things differently and experience new things has to be negotiated with their partner in order for lasting change to be brought about.
If the couple is complacent and focussed on other things - or if the negotiation fails - the distance between the partners grows and important shifts come about.
Shifts in the relationship
Shifts happen when partners start feeling, thinking and behaving differently in the relationship.
The change in feelings is often driven by the need to protect themselves. This may be because they feel that the price they are paying to be in the relationship is too high or because it is not such a safe place anymore. During this time, individuals become more self- serving; they focus more on looking after themselves, are more defensive and, in general, feel much less tolerant and generous towards their partners. As this is not how they want to feel in their primary relationships, it is a time often characterised by frustration, anger and resentment. This, in turn, leads to conflict. Where partners in a relationship may have willingly been prepared to compromise at first, this becomes much more conditional, with a tit-for-tat attitude driving the interpersonal dynamic.
The shift in thinking is often about a renewed focus on the differences between the parties. Where such differences may have contributed to the initial intrigue and attraction between the two, it now becomes a source of frustration and irritation. Very soon they start labelling each other, thereby reducing a multifaceted person to one or two aspects of who they are. The labels (“you are aggressive, selfish, don’t listen”) make it easy for partners to start blaming each other for their relationship dissatisfaction. When things become unpleasant they often find an escape by fantasising about exiting the relationship. Such fantasies, whether acted upon or not, diminishes the personal ownership they take for the relationship.
Finally, changes in feeling and thinking spur on a shift in behaviour. The most problematic behaviour is when the parties start licencing themselves to behave in a retaliatory manner. This is often done subtly and with little conscious ownership of the behaviour or of its specific intent. For example, the exchange might be that if you speak badly to me I licence myself to come home later that agreed. These are subtle shifts, but once this starts happening on many fronts, the relationship gets caught up in a web of small ‘transgressions’ that contaminate it and give it an increasingly adversarial undertone.
It is evident that the shift in feelings, thinking and behaviour reflects a shift from ‘us’ and ‘you’ to ‘me’.
This shift changes the way in which the partners communicate. While the primary goal of communicating is to hear each other, the communication deteriorates into wanting to be right (stage 1), to winning (stage 2) and to annihilating the other (stage 3).
Consequently, communication becomes exceedingly defensive, nothing is taken at face value and all attention is focussed on listening for hidden meaning and intension. As the goal is to be right or to win, discussions quickly escalate and become argumentative and aggressive.
Parallel communication also becomes more prevalent, which means that each person is interested only in building their own argument without really responding to the other. Typically, in such a discussion, every statement or comment is countered with a ‘yes, but..’ and ‘I understand’ evaporates from the couples’ discourse.
The following points typify the dysfunctional communication pattern that sets in:
Partners don’t listen to understand, but in order to respond (defensive);
They comment on what the other person says instead of engaging in a discussion;
Each party hears selectively in order to reinforce their existing edit; and
They make assumptions about what is being said to fit their own edit.
The longer such a communication pattern continues, the more entrenched and rigid the partners’ views about what is happening in the relationship become, and the more each starts blaming the other (my position vs yours) for the relationship not being functional and satisfying.
When is the relationship in trouble?
A relationship may be considered to be in trouble when:
It has moved through cycles and stages without the contract being re-negotiated;
Unattended issues become unresolved issues that pile up between the partners, creating distance and affecting communication;
The way in which the relationship is perceived has changed and shifts have come about in feelings, thinking and behaviour;
The partners shift the blame for what is wrong in the relationship to each other as they become more entrenched in their own perspective and edit events;
The relationship starts imploding as the struggle between individual needs and wants increases, with little willingness on either side to give;
A host of issues have developed around unmet expectations, often resulting in a power struggle, not only between the individuals but also in how needs and wants are prioritised;
Conflict has escalated and less and less satisfaction is being experienced in the relationship;
Less effort is invested in the relationship;
Holes start appearing in the relationship boundary and it becomes easier to penetrate; and
Individuals start looking outside the relationship to satisfy their needs and wants.
An affair involves someone or something that an individual develops a passionate attachment for, and is undertaken to satisfy an individual need. Affairs obsessively hold the person’s attention at the expense of their relationship and partner and, as such, allow non-relationship aspects or persons to enter into and inhabit the relationship space.
Affairs can be had with people (lovers, mothers, friends, children), alcohol, work, pornography, etc.
Once the parties start investing unbridled attention on outside things or persons, their resolve to work on the issues in the relationship becomes relegated to the bottom of their priority list, and less and less is invested in the relationship. This dilutes the quality of the relationship space which, in turn, makes the parties look outside of the relationship in order for their needs to be met, setting in motion a dysfunctional cycle.
Why do affairs happen?
Relational issues that contribute to affairs taking place are high levels of conflict; low levels of emotional and sexual intimacy, brought about by needs and wants not being met; an imbalance of power due to one person compromising more or feeling disempowered; discrepancies in expectations regarding the partner’s role; or the lack of a common long-term vision for the relationship.
Marital distress is not necessarily a precursor to an affair as 56% of men and 34% of women who have had an affair report that they were happily married at the time. A healthy relationship can be vulnerable to an affair when it is subject to prolonged and overwhelming stress. This includes an overload of responsibilities, financial strain and/or physical health issues. The frequent exposure to situations or persons that provide opportunities for external emotional and sexual involvement also taps into the vulnerability of a relationship.
Characteristics of the participating partner include sensation seeking, need for novelty, lack of commitment and conflict avoidance, all of which lead to denial of serious issues in the relationship. Characteristics of the injured partner include self-doubts that interfere with emotional and physical intimacy, lack of emotional regulation, diminished communication skills, fear of conflict and withdrawal from the relationship.
Why do couples get divorced?
If wants override personal needs in the value/cost ratio, couples will probably soldier along for a considerable time. If, however, wants become less important to one of the partners because they don’t need the other to provide financially or if the children are of a certain age, they will exit the marriage (first partially then completely), driven by the desire to satisfy their personal needs.
Divorce usually occurs if:
The relationship space becomes populated with other individuals and interests over which the couple fight and disagree, and the relentless conflict pushes one of the parties to the brink, in which case he or she will either exit or licence himself or herself to behave destructively (the first step is exiting emotionally);
The partners are not able to accommodate and adapt to internal and external changes because communication has broken down; they often wake up one day and feel as if they have woken up in a different relationship, which means that the feeling, thinking and behaviour shift has become the new norm in the relationship;
The differences between the partners are the only thing they focus on because they have not re-negotiated their relationship contract;
The relationship is driven by self-serving and defensive needs and has become dysfunctional; and
The couple is not able to move past an affair because it is indicative of what their relationship has become.
As the relationship breaks down in all of these areas, the partners’ energy and resolve to continue gets worn down. When this happens, they become more focussed on their own need to survive. They also become less tolerant, which results in a breakdown in communication.
Consequently, the differences between the partners seem to become the only aspects around which the dynamic of the relationship is played out. They become exasperated and battle weary. With time, each sees the relationship only through their own lenses. This leads to unbridled blaming and ultimate polarisation. In healthier situations, they realise that they are no longer able to meet each other’s needs.