Why Relationships Break Down

Relationships break down for many reasons, whether as a result of distrust, betrayal, ineffective communication or other issues. And not just romantic relationships: family relationships, friendships, business relations, and so on, can all be subject to a fallout for one reason or another.

Relationships break down for many reasons, whether as a result of distrust, betrayal, ineffective communication or other issues. And not just romantic relationships: family relationships, friendships, business relations, and so on, can all be subject to a fallout for one reason or another.

But unlike romantic relationships, familiar associations don't necessarily come with preconceived notions about how to behave or relate, even though some businesses do propose ways to connect with each other. For the most part, however, people assume that they will naturally get along and when they don't, they'll work it out somehow. Fair enough. But often when trouble brews it isn't necessarily clear what is at the crux of the problem, or how to prevent a breakdown.

When I was in my early twenties, working as a young reporter, I knew a high-profile individual who had it all ... except for her daughter. They were estranged because of her daughter's choice of husband. How ridiculous, I thought. This has to be an anomaly.

Fast-forward thirty years and I hear about this type of relationship breakdown often. While I haven't come across any statistics on the matter, the evidence is all around: fathers and sons and mothers and daughters not speaking; and friends and business associates estranged; and not just on television or in films, but also in real life.

An acquaintance told me of a break-up with a best friend after years of being close. It seemed to all happen in a night or two, ending with putting down the telephone. What was at the heart of it? At first glance it seemed to be about respect, or lack thereof. Repeatedly, the friend had spoken to her rudely. When confronted, the woman insisted that it was her way with everyone, including her mother. So why should her BFF be the exception?

Very well, my acquaintance decided, ending the emotional conversation ... and ultimately, the tumultuous friendship.

Reflecting on my own familiar relationships that have ended, I suspect there is more to these breakdowns than meets the eye. Yes, there are the feelings of disrespect -- betrayals and so on -- but at the centre of it all might be whether or not the relationship has been defined in the first place, and then redefined as it evolves.

How could my acquaintance have defined her friendship then redefined it? Crucially, but not automatically, we all have the opportunity to define our friendships from the onset. We learn about character and behaviour upfront and are at liberty to either invest in the friendship or not; the same goes for business relationships. And when relationships change, we can surely redefine by first off acknowledging the new day.

But how can we define a mother-daughter relationship, for example? It is what it is, isn't it? Not necessarily so. It's true that from day one, mothers and fathers both have an opportunity to set the stage for how to relate to their children, and to teach them how to relate to them, and others, too. Over the years, however, relationships change.

Taking my childhood, for example, I knew clearly who was in charge; who had the last word on major decisions. But when I became an adult that changed, but not without redefining my relationship with my parents. Often, I have the last word, and rightly so where my own life is concerned. A minor example was deciding to serve wine at my wedding reception, despite my mother and father's 'no alcohol' policy. Thankfully, we are still relating.

In the meantime, we honoured a shift in the centre of gravity, which Nicky and Sila Lee in The Marriage Book refer to as, 'a new centre for decision-making', often the catalyst for redefining relationships.

When children grow up and move away, whether they have had a good relationship with their parents or not, it is time to redefine. Back to the high-profile woman I knew in my early career: no doubt she hadn't considered the gravitational shift that, as a young woman, her daughter would likely make different decisions from her, not necessarily out of disrespect but as a result of owning her new life.

As for business relationships, this can be tricky, too. Recently, I heard a high-powered businessman say that the people you work with are like your family: you need to get to know them and you must be able to relate to them. True enough, but there should be a line in the sand and clearly defined roles.

This line can and should be drawn at the beginning. And before agreeing it, both parties would serve their business well to be clear about what is negotiable and what is not, including work ethics and so on. End of story? It never is; situations change.

A few years ago, I hired an interior designer that I hadn't known before. But as the situation evolved, we continually had to redefine our relationship, towing the line between the personal and the professional, having become overly friendly with one another. Somewhere along the way, as the project grew, the centre of gravity shifted, causing an 'imbalance of power'.

Eventually, she opted out. Upon reflection, without acknowledging the gravitational shift, we didn't stand a chance of keeping the relationship intact.

Furthermore, it is important to consider the actual business on which the relationship is based, and whether that is being compromised or not. The same goes for personal relations; is the basis of the relationship in jeopardy? If so, it is time to redefine, rather than to go to battle over the imbalance of power. A couple of tips for doing so are to agree parameters and be willing to change.

Warning, however: defining and redefining isn't a sure-fire way to keep a relationship intact. The latter, in fact, is an ongoing process. But when the centre of gravity shifts, causing an imbalance, knowing where you stand makes a big difference.

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