When a relationship ends

More and more people have come to accept that partnerships may not last for life. The break-up of a relationship tends to have less significance for cohabiting partners than for married couples; and non-married partners also appear to be less likely to prolong a partnership in the face of emotional or other difficulties. About one in three marriages in the West now ends in divorce, a larger proportion than ever before. Many people would say that this is preferable to having large numbers of unhappily married people miserably tied to each other because they are unable to end the marriage.

Particularly in the case of couples who marry at a young age, and who perhaps have not had sufficient time to thoroughly get to know each other, one or both partners may bring to the relationship unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved within it. For example, a common fallacy is that once the marriage vows have been exchanged, the habits and behaviour of one of the partners that might have been acceptable to the other during the preceding courtship, but which are now deemed inappropriate, will miraculously be dropped. In essense, this constitutes an expectation that the person will somehow change after marriage, or can be persuaded to change if necessary under pressure. In reality, the likelihood of someone’s personality altering radically are very slim indeed, and is certainly not going to happen overnight. Whether the problem is relatively ‘trivial’ (although it might not be so to the other partner), such as general utidiness, or a more deep-rooted personality disorder, such as alcoholism, the hoped-for change may never happen. In general, the outcome for couples in this type of situation is a realization of their basic incompatibility. Whether the marriage lasts depends on any number of factors, including not only the depth of feeling the couple have for each other, but also social and economic considerations and whether they feel responsibility towards any children.

A weakening of the traditional pressures on people to stay married despite being unhappy has been a major factor in the rise in the divorce rate. Modern society tends to look less unfavourably on someone who has emerged from an unhappy partnership and, in general, regards divorce as providing the freedom to make a better choice the second time. Changes in the legal systems of many countries have made divorce easier to obtain, and the growth of women’s independence – including the ability to support themselves financially – has increased their ability to end an unhappy marriage.

The end of a longstanding partnership is often marked by tension and unhappiness. This is particularly so for married couples or if children are involved. Children may suffer feelings of rejection and guilt, which separating or divorcing parents should take pains to help their offspring cope with. Many people think that to be a ‘single parent’, raising one or more children without a partner, poses predictable, specific, problems. In fact, most problems have more to do with the way the partnership has ended. For example, a divorced couple using their offspring to hurt each other are hardly doing their child, or children, a favour. On the other hand, if for example a woman wants to raise a child by herself, without ever living with a man, this is not necessarily harmful for the happiness and future of the child. The risk of marital or partnership break-up is particu- larly high during the first few years, and later when any children a couple have are reaching adolescence. The birth of the first child is often a difficult time. A new father, for instance, who feels his female partner is neglecting him for the child, may seek an affair outside the relationship. When children reach adolescence, the ties of dependency between them and their parents begin to dissolve. This may be a time when the mother, especially, is in search of a new role. When parents are not able to adjust to their children’s development, tension and depression may result, sometimes leading to the break-up of their relationship.

Opinions are divided as to whether marriage is stronger or less strong today than previously. Rising divorce and cohabitation rates are sometimes said to prove that the institution of marriage has weakened. What can be said with certainty is that the fulfilment of the main human needs of companionship, parenthood, home-making and sexual satisfaction are more accessible to the majority of people now than at any earlier time, and with fewer constraints and less hypocrisy.