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What causes relationship problems?

There is no one, single cause for relationship problems, but a number of factors can play a part.

Past experiences

A person’s family and upbringing can play an important role in his or her future relationships. People whose parents divorced are more likely to experience relationship breakdowns than those whose parents remained togetherand seeing high levels of conflict during childhood and adolescence or experiencing abuse in the early years has been linked to relationship problems later in life.5,6

Life transitions and stress

Life transitions, such as moving from living together to being married, having a baby, children leaving home, and moving into retirement can put strain on a relationship, and the couple can start feeling less ‘connected’ to one another.7-10

Personal stress can also place strain on the relationship. When people are stressed, they find it more difficult to be positive or to be forgiving with their partner, which can increase their sense of dissatisfaction in the relationship.11 Work problems or financial difficulties, difficulties with in-laws or extended family, or balancing the needs of aging parents with the needs of caring for one’s own children can spill over into the relationship and increase stress between couples.12-14

How people think

The way people think about themselves, their partner and their relationship is an important factor in relationship outcomes. Couples experiencing problems can start to blame each other and see each other as the cause of arguments and difficulties, viewing their partner’s behaviour as selfish and intentional.15 Seeing the relationship or the other person through a negative ‘lens’ can lead to placing more weight on negative events than on the positives, when they occur.16.17 This pattern can lead to more conflict or withdrawal.18

Behavioural factors

Particular patterns of behaviour can be important signs that a relationship is at risk. Interactions that include disrespect, defensiveness, criticism, or ‘stonewalling’ (putting up a barrier to communication) are signs that a relationship is in crisis.17 A ratio of five positive interactions to every one negative interaction has been suggested as a good indicator that a relationship is functioning well.19

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