A friend of mine recently shared a story about a woman who waited fifty years for her husband to die. That’s right: their fifty years of marriage were so agonizing, only his passing could bring her relief. Though it remains unclear why she never left him, there’s no doubt that they were unhappily married.
I wonder what soured their relationship. Perhaps it was incessant bickering over banal details, violent abuse, or the humiliation of infidelity.
Or could they have settled into the less obvious pattern of conflict avoidance until resentment exceeded her love for him? After doing some research, I found that behavioral patterns that sidestep disputes are the most prevalent causes of marital distress. What’s worse, it is from those unresolved issues that more conflicts arise.
I was surprised to learn how common many of these behaviors are and how their affects range from members of couples feeling neglected to feeling emotionally abused. So why do partners spend so much energy dodging disagreements?
According to the greatest love experts of our time, couples fear conflict because they lack the proper tools for sharing their feelings in a kind and constructive manner. Essentially, the way conflicts are handled, can actually determine whether a marriage will thrive or die a painful death.
Since the current divorce rate is 42 to 45 percent, I think it’s relevant to share what researchers believe are the ten most destructive behaviors in a marriage:
Renowned researcher John Gottman argues “that it is not lack of communication that sinks a marriage but, rather, lack of effective conflict resolution.” After following couples for twenty years, Gottman and his colleague Robert Levenson were able to predict with 90 percent accuracy if a marriage was going to last. They did this by analyzing forty-five-minute conversations between spouses.
They found that couples who don’t resolve their issues end up avoiding conflict altogether or bullying each other to win arguments. This usually turns into emotional withdrawal and what Gottman calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
This is when one member of a couple attacks the other person’s character. For example, instead of saying, “It hurts my feelings when you don’t ask me how my day went,” they accost their partner by saying, “You don’t ask because you only care about yourself.” By attacking the very core of who they are, criticizing a partner can have the effect of “dismantling his or her whole being.” Ideally, if a certain behavior is the cause of pain, that behavior should be called into question, not the person as a whole.
When a person mocks, disrespects, ridicules, scoffs at, name-calls, or rolls their eyes at their partner, they are acting out negative or hateful thoughts about them. Believe it or not, when people behave this way, they are sending the message that their partner is “despised and worthless.” These rather ordinary reactions are so destructive in a marriage that Dr. Gottman found contempt to be “the single greatest predictor of divorce.”
According to The Gottman Institute, once couples rely on defensiveness as a way to deflect blame, trouble has long been brewing. Making excuses in response to a spouse’s concerns is a way to escape taking responsibility for one’s actions. And when the concerned party is then blamed, the situation worsens. Take this scenario as an example:
Concerned Spouse: “Did you take out the trash yet?”
Defensive Spouse: “No, I didn’t, I don’t have to do it in your timeframe. You’re so controlling.”
Like most fights that begin this way, these spouses employ more than one harmful behavior, such as defensiveness and criticism, which equals twice the emotional trauma.
When someone is stonewalling their spouse, they are not speaking or engaging with their partner for hours, days, or even weeks. In effect, the one stonewalling is completely shutting down and closing him- or herself off from their spouse. The Gottman Institute believes this to be the deadliest of horseman.
This is because prolonged silence tends to make things worse. The person being stonewalled often feels helpless, frustrated, or even panic-stricken, leading them to believe they are unworthy of attention or that their feelings don’t matter.
According to psychologist Steven Stosny, PhD, “subtle (but sometimes obvious) anxiety or fear in one partner triggers shame-avoidant behavior (withdrawal or anger) in the other, and vice versa.” In one of his articles he lists behaviors of men that make women anxious in marriage, like ignoring her, tuning out her feelings, or stonewalling her. He also lists the things women do that shame their husbands, such as withholding praise, condescending, and dismissing his opinion. This can become a vicious cycle, making it hard to identify exactly where the trouble began, and can oftentimes lead to the deadlock of a Pursuer-Distancer relationship.