To open his epic novel that explored infidelity, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The opening words of Anna Karenina may have gone down in history as one of literature’s most unforgettable lines, but a closer look at crumbling marriages and romantic relationships show that the roots of their breakdown have more similarities than most people realize.
Doomed relationships are often attributed to different causes, such as lack of intimacy, unresolved differences, or financial issues. In each case, an analysis by American professor Mark Knapp identifies five stages that reveal how relationships deteriorate following a common pattern.
One television show that poignantly depicts how marriages break down is The Affair, a drama series that explores marital infidelity.
During the show’s first season, lead characters Noah Holloway (Dominic West) and Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson) saw themselves caught in the throes of their separate marital problems before being consumed by their forbidden love for one another.
Noah is a writer who’s trying to break free from the influence of his wealthy in-laws. Meanwhile, Alison is a waitress who’s struggling to piece her marriage back together in the wake of her son’s death. As the series progressed, Noah found himself more distant and less attracted to his wife, while Alison saw herself making a futile attempt to patch things up with her husband.
Pressures in both marriages lead to the first stage of a relationship breakdown, which Knapp calls “differentiating.” At this point, husband and wife pursue separate activities with little regard for each other.
In Noah’s case, his wife’s lack of involvement in the development of his second novel was a telltale sign of this stage. The same was true for Alison when she started feeling reluctant about living with her husband.
Tensions in both marriages eventually escalate to the next stage called “circumscribing.” Here, more communication boundaries emerge with the couple starting to claim individual personal spaces. This is evident in Noah’s situation where he spends more time working on his novel at the expense of his time with his wife.
The relationship then dwindles further to the third stage called “stagnation,” where couples only choose to stay together because of factors such as children—a tough decision for Noah. The marriage remains intact, but improvements are less likely to happen.
The Affair’s second season opened with Noah’s divorce, which has turned ugly, and Alison finally deciding to put the marriage behind her after failed attempts to rekindle her relationship.
Like all failing couples, Noah and Alison go through the last stages of a relationship’s decline beginning with “avoidance,” where all physical contact and communication are cut. Soon they enter the stage of “termination” by deciding to live separately for good.
Both marriages may have come to a close, but in some ways, endings are new beginnings. For Noah, the divorce gives him a chance to reconnect with his former wife and discuss their daughter’s future. Alison also becomes a mother once again after her life with her ex-husband.
Noah and Alison have earned the freedom to start a life together. But will their passion grow stronger for one another, or end up the way their marriages did?
The Affair Season Three premieres November 22 9:55PM, first and exclusive on RTL CBS Entertainment.