Coping with Relationship Breakdown

If love was the single factor ruling relationships, perhaps our lives would be much less complicated. But a plethora of other factors play an ongoing role in creating relationship conflicts.

Conflict is a normal part of being emotionally attached. But sometimes, conflict in a relationship can be overwhelming and a huge challenge to the parties involved, plus a cause of concern to close family and friends. And despite the inexistence of an antidote or prevention method that can effectively tackle all side effects of a relationship breakdown; there are strategies which can help manage it.

In this article, we will explore strategies and skills that both clients (when dealing with a relationship breakdown) and counsellors (when counselling clients in that situation) can use to prevent the breakdown of a relationship.

INTRODUCTION – The Breakdown

One of the most useful recent research findings is the work which has identified the early warning signs of deterioration of an intimate relationship. Based on these signs, researchers have been able to predict with a very high degree of accuracy (about 90%) which relationships are likely to end within a few years.

This information is crucial in accepting when your relationship is seriously in need of more attention or help. Dr. J. Gottman and colleagues at the University of Washington have found there are four specific signs of deterioration of an intimate relationship. In order of increasing danger, they are listed below:

  • Criticism – instead of merely complaining, the person attacks and blames their partner’s personality and/or character, such as “you are a selfish uncaring person”;
  • Contempt – feedback with the intent to insult and/or psychologically abuse the partner, such as “you are more than stupid: a total idiot “;
  • Defensiveness – not being willing to listen to anything your partner has to say to you, out of fear of them hurting or attacking you; and
  • Stonewalling – ignoring, avoiding and distancing from your partner.

Dr. H. Markman and Dr. S. Stanley at the University of Colorado have also identified four warning signs of deterioration:

Escalation of negativity during the couples’ interaction – an increase in complaining and criticism;
Invalidation of each other – not making attempts to understand each other’s points of view;
Negative interpretation of neutral or positive events – when one person does or says something which is clearly meant to be neutral or even positive, but their partner interprets their intentions as being hostile or negative; and
Avoidance and withdrawal from partner.

These research findings are very similar, despite completely different couples and research agendas. If one notices that a relationship is experiencing two or more of these signs, this relationship needs some extra help and attention. An ounce of prevention can save an incredible amount of emotional, financial and physical pain.

PART 1 – Being the Counsellor

Relationship conflicts are one of the most common issues when working as a counsellor often with either a couple or an individual in a relationship (Kottler, 2004). There are a number of strategies that may be used in counselling when dealing with a relationship in trouble.

Relationship Goals

Relationship goals are important to the counselling process as they give clients something to work towards and aim for. Goals should be clear and specific and focus on areas where change is needed. Often within a relationship, communication is the number one priority.

Goals can be stated or written, but they should be agreed upon by both partners at the beginning of the counselling process. Goals may be documented in a behavioural contract format and signed by both partners. The goals stated should be those in which both partners agree and claim ownership. The relationship goal contract should be kept in a safe place and reviewed throughout the counselling process. During the review, goals may be modified, and future objectives identified.

Step 1: Discuss the significant issues in depth. Through the counselling process, the counsellor/therapist should be able to help clients to identify possible goal areas. Table 1 may be used to identify areas that clients may wish to work on.

Step 2: List goals and incorporate the following goal characteristics:

  • Goals should specify that each partner is responsible for ensuring the tasks are completed to achieve the goals.
  • Different goals require different time frames and different flexibility for attainment – from a day up to 5 years from when the goal is written.
  • Goals should be reasonable with a realistic chance of being attained.
  • Goals should be written in clear, understandable language, easily understood by both partners.
  • Goals should be agreed on by both partners; each partner can commit to ownership of the goal.
  • Goals should guarantee respect for the rights of each partner.
  • Goals should ensure the health of the relationship.
  • Goals should be oriented to each partner’s growth in the relationship.

Step 3: Both partners should sign the relationship goal contract and review. The relationship goal contract should be reviewed regularly.


When problems arise in relationships, it is often a result of poor communication. For the counsellor, it is important to teach client’s good communication skills. This can be done by both utilising own communication skills to demonstrate what is appropriate as well as implementing the basic guidelines for good communication with clients throughout counselling sessions. If clients do not follow the guidelines, it is important to give them feedback about this.

Basic guidelines for good communication:

  • Clients should be clear about what is to be communicated.
  • Clients should use “I feel” statements throughout counselling sessions.
  • Don’t allow clients to use blame or labels of their partner
  • Allow time for clients to check for accuracy about what they have heard.
  • Clients should be encouraging and supportive of their partner.
  • Clients should be willing to negotiate.

As well as using the basic guidelines for communication, O’Hanlon has developed the concept of action talk which may also improve communication between partners. Action talk is about someone telling his or her partner that a behaviour they do or are doing is not okay with him or her (O’Hanlon, 1999). O’Hanlon (1999) has developed three methods of action talk:

  • Action Complaints: This is where the individual states what action the other person it was he or she was unhappy with.
  • Action Requests: This is where the individual states how he or she would prefer the other person to act in the future rather than focusing on the negative behaviour.
  • Action Praise: This is where the individual praises current or past actions that were positive.

Problem Solving Skills

When there are problems in a relationship, it can be difficult to see a way forward. By teaching clients how to apply logical, critical, and creative thinking, it enables them to find effective solutions for themselves. The following are the steps involved in problem solving:

  • Identify the problem
  • Break the problem down into parts – one small step at a time
  • Explore the problem – consider a variety of solutions and strategies
  • Set a goal – what should be achieved?
  • Choose a solution and put it into action
  • Evaluate – what went well?
  • Evaluate – what could you do differently next time?

Building Intimacy

Intimacy must be built up over time and for some it is a longer process than others. Often the harder one works at intimacy, the more valuable and rewarding it can be. Strategies to develop intimacy include:

  • Be positive about what they have in the relationship. Get both partners to let each other know what they value about each other and the relationship.
  • Create opportunities for intimacy. Allow the clients to make time where they can be alone together in a situation where they can focus on each other and on the relationship. An example of this could be to plan a regular evening, day or weekend for the two of them to be alone.
  • Practise making “I” statements about how they feel.
  • After an argument, talk about the deeper feeling behind the anger, hurt, anxiety, or sense of being let down. Encourage clients to talk about the feelings

PART 2 – Being the Client

O’Hanlon outlined nine methods which can be implemented by clients in the counselling process. This method can be applied by anyone facing a possible relationship breakdown. Make a specific plan for change: It is a good idea to develop a specific plan with your partner about how change will occur. Documenting the process will make it more concrete and give you something to compare your results to.

Change your usual conflict patterns or styles: Do the opposite to how you would normally act in an argument. This includes tone of voice, how you react, and the setting of the argument. For example, if you normally yell in an argument, use a quieter tone of voice, if you normally argue in the kitchen, move to another room in the house.

Do a 180: Change you usual pursuer-distancer pattern: This refers to how you react in the relationship to conflict, by either pursuing your partner or by withdrawing from your partner. Basically, when conflict arises, choose to react differently to how you would normally.

Catch you partner doing something right: Speak to your partner about things they have done right in the recent past. By praising them, they will feel more positive about the relationship and you will find that you will appreciate them more.

Unpack vague, blaming, and loaded words; instead, use action talk: The use of action talk focuses on the behaviour of your partner rather making negative blaming statements towards them. For example, instead of saying “You think all my ideas are stupid,” you could say “When you don’t respond to my ideas, I feel as though I am not worthy of a response.”

Change your complaints into “action requests”: Action requests should be used to tell your partner what behaviour you want them to change. For example, instead of saying “You don’t like to do anything with me,” you could say “Why don’t we make a date night of Wednesday, once a week.

Focus on how you can change, and take responsibility for making that change: You need to assume responsibility to make changes in your relationship. This should occur in situations that aren’t harmful or destructive.

Blow your partner’s stereotype of you: Find out what your partner’s stereotype is of you and try and do the opposite (in cases where it may be negative). For example, your partner thinks of you as being lazy so do the opposite of this and make an effort such as helping to clean the house.

Compassionate listening: Stop and listen to your partner and try and see where he or she is coming from. Don’t interrupt or try to correct what they are saying.

Source: O’Hanlon, B. (1999). Do one thing different and other uncommonly sensible solutions to life’s persistent problems. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

CONCLUSION – The Next Step

A Brazilian proverb says: “of a doctor and a mad man, everyone has a little bit”. In relationships, do people have a bit of a counsellor and a bit of a client? A friend may often take the role of the “counsellor”, helping a friend in need of an external opinion; whilst a counsellor might be the one struggling to deal with a relationship outside of his or her professional life.

Whichever role you are currently in, it is important to create a healing context within the relationship. This is achieved when partners respect each other; show supportive language and feel free to show physical affection; encourage honest communication; and more.

Even if there is anger, criticism or condemnation, a healing environment can calm the atmosphere and allow clarity and purpose of vision to thrive.