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.
This pattern begins when one or both people don’t feel fulfilled in a relationship, but only one is speaking up. For example, a person resorts to nagging, criticism, or blame to express her need for more intimacy. Using defensiveness, the other spouse retreats and might stonewall her. Psychologist Terry Gaspard explains that simply encouraging “couples to open up and communicate more” isn’t enough. Couples who find themselves locked into this pattern feel hurt by the manner in which feelings are being expressed.
Again, it goes back to how, not if a couple is communicating. One example of good communication Gaspard gives is to express one’s intent in a positive way, by saying, “I feel unimportant to you when you don’t include me in plans with your friends. I’d like to be kept posted, even if you prefer to see them on your own.”
The Overdrawn Love Bank
An unconventional yet interesting view on marriage pioneered by Dr. Harley is that
“inside all of us is a Love Bank with accounts in the names of everyone we know.” When people have more negative interactions with their spouse than positive, they begin to associate their spouse with unhappiness. Based on his research, Dr. Harley believes that “love might be nothing more than a learned association.”
Though oversimplified, this is one way of looking at relationships: The more we hurt each other (by acting in the ways described in this article), the less happy we feel, so the inverse must also be true.
A close cousin to stonewalling, emotional disengagement is defined as holding back certain aspects of one’s inner being. Sam Margulies, PhD and Esq., believes that being emotionally engaged is a “minimum requirement” in order to maintain intimacy. This includes feeling safe enough to share one’s feelings and actively listening to the other person’s feelings. If this does not regularly take place, couples may feel as though they are falling out of love with each other, have less sexual intercourse, feel bored in the marriage, and start looking outside the relationship.
Unrealistic Marital Expectations
Though Katie Durkin is no expert, her views on the Limits of Traditional Marriage are worth noting. She believes “the unrealistic demands of monogamy” are yet another hindrance to matrimonial success. She calls for people to reevaluate their expectations of marriage and infidelity.
However, not all people who are unhappy in a marriage seek affection outside their relationship. Perhaps individuals just need to feel respected for the unique person they are. Maybe they need room to grow and change or they wish to be understood. After all, people are apt to change, and that’s okay.
A couple’s conflict-resolution strategies (or lack thereof) can predict the health of their marriage. And it isn’t about simply avoiding divorce, because staying unhappily married, like my friend’s long-suffering pal, can be just as heartbreaking. It’s about raising the quality of one’s marriage and tailoring it to suit each individual’s needs.
And since conflict is inevitable, why not get used to the discomfort and dig into issues with a little patience and respect? If couple’s aren’t willing to make the effort it takes to navigate conflict with loving kindness, unhappiness will surely follow.