Each year millions of people suffer the crippling effects of a life-shattering event --breakup and divorce. Naturally they want to understand their predicament, grasp what has befallen them, or tell the world what they are going through.

Two natural disasters come to mind when people describe their relationship failure: "It's like an earthquake," or "Now I know what it's like to be under a volcano." According to the metaphors, you cannot mend the chasm in the earth or put the lava back in the crater. Yet despite their similarities, these two phenomena are different in crucial respects. The same is true for the patterns of breakup.

The earthquake: It's sudden, fast and furious. A shock-wave hits and the territory becomes unrecognizable. The cataclysm turns your known universe upside down: one day you are a reasonably happily married couple, the next you are the worst of enemies. You feel betrayed, all trust has broken down. He/she has gone and you are left with nothing. You cannot believe it's happening to you. Divorce figures used to be a statistic, now you are a statistic.

The family home feels like a bomb-site, especially if kids are involved. The parents can hardly take care of themselves, let alone see to the needs of their children. Emotions are running high. Everybody concerned is just about cracking up, barely keeping their bits together and at best waiting for the dust to settle.

Involvement with a third person is often the cause of this kind of rupture. But it is not unknown for one party, without warning, to pack his/her bags and leave, either because he feels it is all too much or she just reached her wit's end.

If you are not the initiator, you are probably feeling that the bottom has dropped out of your world, that you are worthless, hopeless and a lost cause. You're convinced you will never have anything going for you again. In sharp contrast, you think your ex- has taken all the 'good' with him or her and is living it up.

Perhaps it was inevitable living on a fault line, but who thought the day would come. The last earthquake was in 19...

The volcano: The buildup to the eruption is gradual but unstoppable. If you don't move in time its consequences are devastating. There were small eruptions in the past but things calmed down. You hear rumblings now and are left feeling uneasy when you contemplate what they presage. Perhaps they are warning signs of your relationship running down? You know that like most things, relationships atrophy without the proper care.

You are aware that your relationship is not what it was. Petty arguments arise more and more frequently, being bitchy to each other has become the norm. You are losing respect for your partner and can't figure out why. Maybe the physical side of your relationship is not what you want it to be or there isn't the intimacy you expect and need. You are not seeing eye-to-eye about the kids and they are quick to exploit the situation.

You sense that you and your partner are drifting apart but you do nothing to repair, such as: talk about your problems, try to change the dynamic between you or enlist help. You feel the pressure building up and you dismiss it because you hope it will dissipate and in any case the thought of separating is too painful. But things get worse and you are now hardly talking to one another. You are like ships passing in the night. It is cold between you. You haven't kissed in ages, never mind caressed or made love.

Sadly, you reach the point of no return. The volcano bursts and changes the landscape irrevocably. You have to run for cover because it is too late to save the marriage.

Bearing in mind that a breakup is seldom either totally unexpected or definitely predictable, for people in the midst of the process it is worth considering whether your situation more closely resembles an earthquake or a volcano. Where the signs of breakup are more similar to the earthquake scenario you have very little room for maneuver, which makes it difficult to save the relationship. But in the case of a breakup process that is more like a volcano you may be able to save the marriage if you take preventative measures in time.

Is your experience more similar to an earthquake or to a volcano?