The End of Relationships (2023)

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Some people can walk away from years of marriage and instantly feel relieved and unburdened. For others, the end of a relationship that lasted just a few weeks can bring on intense emotional trauma that lingers for years. Whatever the circumstances of a breakup, experts suggest, it is potentially a major life stressor whose effect on one’s ego and self-esteem should not be dismissed.

On This Page

  • Why Couples Split
  • Divorce
  • Getting Over a Breakup

Why Couples Split

In some failed relationships, partners endure a gradual decline of connection, intimacy, and affection, while in others, one or the other partner can identify moment when they knew it was over. When a relationship experiences strain, couples must decide if they have built a connection that can sustain it, and if not, whether it’s best to end it.

What do couples fight about most?

Surveys of what couples argue about find many common sources of conflict including affection, communication, jealousy, sexual frequency, control, future plans, chores and responsibilities, secrets, and finances. Being aware of the topics that tend to frustrate couples most often, experts say, would help new partners prepare, and perhaps stay together longer.

What are “the four horsemen of the apocalypse”?

Psychologist John Gottman famously pointed to four core issues as most likely to derail a relationship—criticism (questioning a partner’s character), contempt (acting superior to a partner), defensiveness (avoiding responsibility), and stonewalling (refusing to engage with issues). When these negative interactions outnumber positive ones, he suggested, these “four horsemen of the apocalypse” have taken hold, and a couple may not survive.

What are the signs that a relationship has turned toxic?

Sometimes, the signs that a relationship has turned toxic are clear only in hindsight, because often when a partner experiences gaslighting, intermittent positive reinforcement, social isolation, or the feeling that they can’t be themselves in their primary relationship, it takes time to realize it or to admit that they need to leave.

How do you know when it’s over?

The most common reasons people say they fall out of love are a loss of physical intimacy, a loss of trust, a loss of feeling loved, emotional pain, often driven by grief over feeling lonely, and negative views of oneself (poor self-image, feeling like a failure) driven by feeling rejected by a partner.

Yes, at least indirectly. Recent research finds that a husband’s negative feelings about his wife’s friends is a fairly reliable predictor of divorce, perhaps because women are more likely to share relationship struggles with friends, or because a wife’s friendships may be closer than a husband’s and thus seen as threatening to their relationship.

How do most breakups happen?

The end of a relationship can be seen as occurring across stages including contemplation (starting to think about change); preparation (getting ready to end it); action (initiating a breakup); and maintenance (sticking with the decision). Other analyses of breakups pint to more stages, as one or both partners waver or change their minds about leaving before finally walking away.

Why would someone ghost a partner?

Ghosting is an increasingly common way of ending relationships; at least a quarter of young adults say they have or have been ghosted. Ghosting involves ending all contact with a partner and essentially vanishing, with no explanation of the underlying reasons why. Ghosting hurts so much because it can leave an abandoned partner feeling they did something wrong, or that they may be unworthy of love.

For more, see Ghosting.

Can a separation strengthen a relationship?

A temporary separation can make a relationship stronger, research suggests, if it’s done the right way and for the right reasons. Experts suggest seeking a counselor for help in planning the ground rules, setting clear expectations, especially for communication, and guiding partners back together. Often a separation makes the relationship’s weaknesses clearer, however, leading to a more mutually agreeable breakup.


Standing at the altar, few couples can imagine that they will one day be signing divorce papers. And yet many will. Spouses lose their connection to each other for some common reasons—infidelity, financial stress, a decline of affection, or incompatibility—and so experts suggest that couples remain vigilant about these challenges even during their honeymoon period and, if those issues become insurmountable, they honestly assess whether it’s time to part ways.

For more, see Divorce.

Why do longtime spouses get divorced?

It’s less common for people to divorce after long marriages, but the divorce rate for couples over 50 has doubled since 1990. The strongest predictor of divorce among older couples is whether one or both partners has been divorced before, although many older partners say they divorced because of long-ignored issues they were only prepared to face after their children left home.

How can partners benefit from a divorce?

Research shows that in many cases, divorce can boost self-esteem. In the months or years leading up to divorce, partners’ self-esteem tends to dip, and while it may take a while to recover after a split, it generally does, suggesting that divorce is the antidote, albeit a painful one, to an unhappy marriage.

Do men or women seek divorce more often?

Women initiate divorce far more often than men, instigating legal action in almost 70 percent of cases, across ages, regions, and ethnicities. Evolutionary psychologists point to these statistics as an indication that women hold more power, or at least take more action, when it comes to mating choices among humans.

Why do some people get along better after they divorce?

Many couples find a pleasant surprise after getting divorced: They get along better. Researchers suggest that this is because ex-partners need to rely on each other less; that, free from marital stress, partners become more positive; and that when their kids are all they share, they find it’s easier to work as a team to support them. In this way, breaking up can improve a relationship.

Is divorce bad for your health?

Married people are generally healthier and happier than those who are divorced, and they live longer. People living alone, for example, can more easily fall into poor eating or sleep habits. But it’s not necessarily the case that divorce is bad for your health: Staying in a failed marriage may be even more detrimental, and people whose personality traits may have brought on a divorce may be less long-lived whether or not they’re partnered.

Getting Over a Breakup

Even if you didn’t believe a relationship would last a lifetime, its ending can hurt, especially if you feel that you’ve been rejected by someone you loved and trusted. Understanding why breakups are painful, and what you can learn from them, are crucial steps toward bouncing back.

How can I recover from a breakup?

Recommended strategies to get over a breakup include maintaining distance from an ex; reminding yourself of their bad qualities, and not just the good ones you may miss; taking up new activities; and making sure to maintain your health. Some people find that repeating certain phrases or mantras, like “I love myself,” “I want to be happy,” or “I am better off,” can hasten emotional recovery.

Why are some breakups more painful than others?

There are some proven reasons it can take so long to get over an ex: People who tend to catastrophize may find it harder to see a positive future post-breakup; those who ruminate on negative thoughts and “what ifs” can struggle to move one; and those who have a weaker sense of self may wonder who they are without a partner.

How often do people get back together with an ex?

On-again, off-again relationships are common: At least a third of couples, whether heterosexual or same-sex, have at some point broken up and come together again. Research suggests that cyclical relationships, however, are lower in quality and less fulfilling, in part because these connections may be driven by loneliness, nostalgia, and placing a higher priority on sex than in other relationships.

Are breakups harder on men or women?

Breakups are tougher on men, research suggests. They are more likely to adopt poor health habits after a breakup, and more likely to develop suicidality. Men are also more likely to rely on a romantic partner as their primary source of emotional support than are women, who tend to have close friendships to support them after a split.

Should I have a backup boyfriend or girlfriend?

Many people in relationships also, consciously or not, maintain connection with a backup boyfriend or girlfriend. These “back-burner relationships” typically involve close unattached friends and are quite common, especially among young adults: College women have, on average, 3.78 “Plan B” boyfriends in mind as insurance should their primary relationships fizzle. It is not clear, though, whether the presence of backup partners threatens or shortens primary relationships.

How can you make sure a breakup lasts?

Unhappy partners can stay in a failed relationship for months or years because they cannot see a clear path to leaving or because the person from whom they want to separate convinces them to stay. To make sure a breakup sticks, consider scheduling a time to talk, speaking honestly but not critically, stating what you appreciate about the other person, and, crucially, setting clear boundaries for a separation.

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