5 Stages of a Relationship’s Demise
Stages we unconsciously engage in to try to repair a relationship.
We are all pretty much trying to improve a relationship, maintain one, get into one or get out of one. As I work with people on their love lives, I am inclined to think that just like Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief, there are stages we unconsciously engage in to try to repair a relationship. Unfortunately, if not tackled with insight and wisdom, our very efforts to save the relationship ultimately do it in. When left to our own devices without seeking help or gaining new skills, these are generally the unconscious stages we walk through in an attempt to fix the problem:
Stage 1: Negotiation. Typically our first attempt to improve a relationship situation is focused on changing the other person. We think, if only we could get him or her to…(fill in the blank) and attempt to negotiate for the desired changes. If that works great, but if our conscious effort to change the other person (or situation) meets with little, if any success, we typically move on to stage two.
Stage 2: Manipulation. This is when we find ourselves powerless over making the other person change their behavior so we, mostly unconsciously, slip into manipulative behaviors to try to influence them. These include arguing, put downs, sarcasm, gestures, passive aggressive behaviors, withdrawal, revenge, retaliation, gossip—to name a few. The problem with these manipulative behaviors is they not only do not work in solving the original problem, but they cause additional problems as well. This stage can, unfortunately last for quite a long time. It creates misery and destroys the joy in the relationship.
Stage 3: Withdrawal. This is when we start plotting and planning how to get out—if not physically, then emotionally and intimately. This is generally the stage when affairs happen as one or the other has given up hope (or it is part of the retaliation process). The relationship slips into an all-time low, as does the morale of the participants. It is difficult if not impossible to repair a relationship while planning your exit at the same time. It is essentially like trying to go two different directions at the same time.
(This is typically about the time people seek relationship help. Unfortunately, waiting until now is like waiting until your house is falling down to repair the rotting wood. It isn’t too late, but it is more challenging.)
Stage 4: Get Out. We cannot see how to improve the situation, which by now is far worse than the original problem ever was, so we break up or get divorced. The problem here, however, is that no personal evolution took place and the emotional baggage, hurt, fear and anger are all seething just below the surface.
Stage 5: Seek someone better. Still convinced that the problem was outside of ourselves, (the other person or the situation) we seek someone else, someone better. (Sometimes this happens as stage four instead of five.) While indeed we may find a better match, if we haven’t gained any new skills, tools, methods or perspectives and we are heavily loaded with the baggage of our previous relationships, there is a high likelihood that we will return to these stages and get stuck in two and three. Some people stay there quite miserably “til death do us part,” or continue through the stages again and again.
An obvious moral to the story is do something faster, but a less obvious suggestion is do something differently and more wisely faster. For now, take a look at where your relationship is currently. If you are heading through these stages or stuck deeply entrenched in one of them, there is still hope, but you will have to do something differently. Doing the same thing over and over and over again will get you the same results, or worse. Awareness of what is happening is a starting point for turning the situation around. In my next blog, I’ll share the stages of rebuilding a relationship and guiding it back to health.