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How to *not* destroy your marriage
or, the four key behaviors to avoid in any meaningful relationship
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I was scrolling through Facebook the other day and was shocked to see that a couple I knew had divorced. Of course, we never really know what goes on in other people’s relationships (especially those who we only keep up with on social media). But it seems like, lately, I’ve been hearing about an increasing number of friends and acquaintances splitting up.
When these things happen, it’s natural to wonder, “What happened? And how can I prevent that from happening to me?” In a recent Atlantic article, Matthew Fray explains that most marriages end—not because of some major rupture in trust, like infidelity or addiction—but because of petty, everyday disagreements and dismissals. He says:
The things that destroy love and marriage often disguise themselves as unimportant. Many dangerous things neither appear nor feel dangerous as they’re happening. They’re not bombs and gunshots. They’re pinpricks. They’re paper cuts. And that is the danger. When we don’t recognize something as threatening, then we’re not on guard. These tiny wounds start to bleed, and the bleed-out is so gradual that many of us don’t recognize the threat until it’s too late to stop it.
Clinical psychologists John and Julie Gottman have researched relationships for over 40 years. After interviewing thousands of couples and following their relationships longitudinally, they have found four toxic behaviors that are the greatest predictors of divorce: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.
When we criticize, we’re looking to blame someone else for our own negative feelings; e.g., “I’m stressed because you never help out at home”. These types of statements assign blame and usually attribute the cause to some sort of inherent personality flaw that we perceive the other person to have.
Criticism is different than offering a complaint or critique. I want to be clear that the takeaway is not to refrain from voicing what’s bothering you. Rather, my point is to focus on how you’re saying it. A complaint focuses on a specific behavior or issue, while criticism is an attack on your partner’s character.
Note the difference in these two statements:
“It feels inconsiderate of my schedule when you tell me you’ll leave the office at 6, but you don’t end up leaving until 8.”
“You think your time is so much more important than mine. You’re so selfish and you never take my needs into account.”
The first statement offers feedback on a specific behavior while the latter feels like a personal attack. Bottom line: Complain without blame, avoid using words like “always” and “never”, and keep it about the issue, not character.
Defensiveness is often a response to criticism, but it can also be used as a tactic for avoiding accountability. Defensive behavior shifts the blame away from you and back onto the other person. Building off the example above, a defensive response would look like:
“It’s not a big deal. My boss gave me a last minute assignment, and I had to stay to finish it. My day was stressful enough and now I have to deal with complaining from you?”
The cycle of criticism and defensive is a downward spiral that not only leads to resentment but also doesn’t move you, as a couple, towards actually addressing the problem at hand. You’re likely to have the exact same argument the next time your partner stays late at the office.
The antidote to defensiveness? Take responsibility.
“You’re right. I should have called to tell you about this last-minute assignment. I’m sorry.”
Contempt is a more extreme version of criticism. When we demonstrate contempt, we take a stance of superiority and are deliberately trying to wound the other person. Examples of contemptuous behaviors include mockery, sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling, or sneering. Statements may sound like:
“You had a stressful day?? I raced home to get the kids off the bus, they’ve been arguing all evening, and now I have to deal with this crap from you?”
“You’re such a pain in the ass. Why don’t you go whine to someone who cares?”
Regular expressions of contempt break down intimacy and the psychological safety necessary to maintain a close relationship—the stakes are just too high for the other person to demonstrate vulnerability. This behavior is toxic to a relationship and, according to the Gottmans’ research, it is the biggest predictor of eventual divorce.
Stonewalling is exactly what it sounds like—one person shuts down, withdraws, walks away, or simply stops responding. Oftentimes stonewalling occurs after displays of contempt when the other person feels attacked or overwhelmed. It may be an attempt to protect oneself or de-escalate the argument. In these cases, it can be hard to stop stonewalling since it’s a way to self-regulate when experiencing psychological flooding.
Other times, stonewalling can be a manipulation tactic to punish the other person by shutting down lines of communication and withdrawing connection. In these cases, stonewalling functions more as an act of contempt.
Either way, the antidote to stonewalling is to stop doing it. It’s perfectly reasonable to need time to yourself to calm down and gather your thoughts before responding, and sometimes arguments are no longer productive and both parties could benefit from a break. However, communication is key. It’s important to say something like:
“I’m feeling too upset to discuss this further right now. I need some time to myself. Can we can talk about this again once I’ve calmed down?”
The outcome is the same—you’re getting the time you need to regulate—but the process allows for communication and connection with the other person.
Ditto for kids and work
If you’re a regular reader, you probably already know what I’m going to say: These same concepts can also be applied to other relationships—including with your kids and at work.
These four behaviors are toxic to any relationship, but they can be particularly damaging in the context of the parent-child relationship, as children are still forming their self-concept. Note the difference between telling your kid, “I told you to clean up your shoes! You never listen to me!” and “There are shoes scattered on the floor. I need you to pick them up now.” You are still setting clear expectations with the second statement and, not only are you preserving your relationship, you’re more likely to see the outcome you desire since your child won’t feel attacked.
The same is true at work. When negative feedback is required, take the personal element out of it and focus on the behavior that needs to be changed. Own mistakes you (will inevitably) make. Save the eye-rolling and sarcasm for happy hour with your girlfriends. And don’t resort to passive-aggressive, silent treatment type behavior.
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