4 Steps to a Miserable Marriage

4 Steps to a Miserable Marriage

Guaranteed Ways to Make Your Marriage Miserable

There are some very damaging behaviors you can do that will guarantee the demise of your marriage.  John Gottman, PhD and his team of researchers have been researching couples since the 1980’s.  Their research shows us that 4 key behaviors make it impossible to cultivate or maintain the love, intimacy and teamwork you longed for when you first said your wedding vows.  These 4 dangerous behaviors are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.  They kill marriages.  None of them has any usefulness in any marriage at any time.  If you, or your spouse, engage in any of these behaviors, then you are on notice to do some quick and thorough repair work before it is too late.  If you are feeling that you are off the hook because you only do these behaviors in the privacy of your own mind, or only when you are with your BFF, then you are also on notice.  This, too, is toxic because it undermines your ability to foster a healthy marriage and is never as hidden as you think.  Criticism assumes the worst, instead of the best, about your spouse and always interferes with the process of love and intimacy.

Criticism occurs when you attack the character of your spouse by directly saying or implying that they are deficient in some way.  You think or act in a disapproving manner and blame the problem on their flawed personality.  Spouses who use criticism justify their behavior by believing that they are only being truthful or fair in pointing out a partner’s flaws for the benefit of the partner.  They may even believe that they are just being assertive by being critical.  For example, they use an “I” statement to express criticism instead of talking about how they really feel, “I feel that you are being self-absorbed because you never think to dump the trash,” instead of making a true assertive response, “I would love it if you would help me around the house.  Would you please go dump the trash?” Criticism can look like this.  For example, your spouse forgets to refill the paper towel dispenser after they use the last paper towel and you fume, “You are so insensitive and selfish.  You never think about others and never take the time to follow through even though you know how busy I am.”

Contempt occurs when you express a belief in your superiority by using sarcasm, cynicism, eye rolling, name calling or using public ridicule.  It indicates a profound lack of respect and is the behavior most likely to predict divorce because it is the equivalent of firing off an emotional nuclear warhead in your marriage.  Spouses who use contempt often try to justify their behavior by chiding their partner for not being able to take a joke or by telling them that they deserve the contempt.  Examples of contempt:  “You idiot!”  “Yeah right, you want me to do what?!”  “Don’t ask my husband to do it-he will just watch TV instead!”

Defensiveness is often the response that a spouse will give a partner who engages in criticism and contempt.  It can also occur when someone is very frightened of conflict and has a belief that they must never make a mistake.  People who are defensive act like a victim or respond with a tirade of righteous indignation during a conflict.  Examples of defensiveness:  “You never listen to me.  You always just think about yourself and do whatever you want.  You never ask me what I want to do!”   “How dare you talk to me like that! “  “How dare you mention my mother!”

Stonewalling occurs when someone just clams up, refuses to talk or to listen and just exits the conversation.  Stonewalling occurs when you give your spouse the silent treatment, hang up the phone, refuse to answer texts or emails, walk out of the room, or drive away from the house.  The key is that the person exits without explanation or agreement from the spouse that the conversation is over.  The presence of stonewalling in a marriage often indicates that criticism, contempt and defensiveness have been going unchecked for far too long in the relationship.  Spouses who stonewall feel powerless to intervene and believe that the only option is to avoid further pain by checking out.  The problem, however, is that this solution also prevents any opportunity for solving the conflict.

What can be done to address these painful and damaging behaviors?

  1. If criticism is a problem, try expressing how you feel about what has happened instead of dismantling your spouse’s behavior. Then follow up by stating the positive thing that you hope for in your marriage.  Instead of this, “You are so wrapped up in the kids.  You never think about me, “ Try this, “I really miss how you used to kiss me when I walked in the door.  It hurts every time you hug the kids and then disappear on your laptop without first giving me a kiss and a hug.”  The hidden message in every disappointment is a longing for something to go well between you and your spouse.  Be sure to express what you long for in your marriage.
  1. If contempt is a problem, then the focus should be upon restoring mutual respect and gratitude. It helps to get rid of the idea that one of you is “good” at being married and the other one is not.  Instead, your aim is to remind yourself how the two of you are both fallen creatures that bring different skills sets to the marriage.  God does not value one of you above the other and neither should you.  Keeping a daily log of the things for which you can be grateful for in your spouse can help to change your attitude.  Forcing yourself to do this even on difficult days can teach you to see their humanity and beauty even during difficult times.  Remembering that your spouse’s behavior is the result of circumstance can decrease your proclivity for allowing contempt to seep into your marriage. (see the article Quid Pro Quo vs. White As Snow).
  1. If defensiveness is a problem, then the focus should be upon learning to communicate assertively using the aforementioned formula for using “I” statements while expressing the positive goal for a close relationship. If you slip into defensiveness, then you should remind yourself that your interpersonal power comes from your ability to clearly express how you feel and what you long for in the relationship.  Giving away your power by whining about what went wrong or the injustice of your spouse’s behavior prevents the two of you from being able to work together to address the problem.  Instead of this, “I try so hard to please you and nothing I do ever satisfies you.  Nothing!” try this, “I feel so alone when you never notice what needs to be done around the house.  I get really tired doing the housework and wish we could do it together so that we could have more time to relax together and have some fun.”
  1. If stonewalling is a problem, then the solution is to take a 20-minute breather to let both you and your spouse calm down. Then you should try again to address the problem using the technique mentioned above.  If your spouse is the one stonewalling you, then apologize for overwhelming them and ask for a 20-minute breather and to give the two of you a chance to solve the problem together.  Offer them he chance to speak first and to start off the resumed conversation.  If your spouse is accusing you of stonewalling them, then ask for their help and encouragement so that you can be courageous and continue the conversation.  If you really believe that it is pointless to try and talk to your spouse, then you should seek the help of your pastor, or a couples therapist, so you and your spouse can learn to talk about difficult things in a safe and mutually satisfying manner.
  1. Read any of John Gottman’s books to get more detailed information that research shows will help you to improve your marriage. You and your spouse really can create the loving and intimate relationship that you long for, even after years of mistakes.  All it takes is a willingness to try new behaviors and a refusal to settle for misery.
  1. If you find that you are unable to change these patterns, then do your marriage a favor and find a good marriage therapist, someone trained in the latest research about marriage. Your pastor may be able to provide you with a referral.  The Gottman Institute (Gottman.com) can also provides referrals to therapists trained in the best ways to intervene on behalf of your marriage.

Karen Cassiday, Ph.D., A.C.T. is a Light of Christ member with 25 years of experience in clinical psychology. To read her full biography, click here.

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