Throughout the years, my wife and I have counseled many couples who have reported feeling lonely in their marriages, desperate and confused about how to break the vicious cycle of continuing to fight over and over about the same things. Contrary to popular belief on shows like Dr. Phil and various marriage seminars that rob you of your time and money, communication is NOT the key to a healthy marriage. It is a very small piece of a large and messy marriage pie. Unhealthy couples actually communicate very openly (and sometimes loudly) what they want, they just don’t understand how to get to the place they want to be. The following are 5 marriage killers. In other words, five dynamics that we have seen in our practices that spell disaster for all couples. It makes no difference whether or not you are christian or Buddhist, vegetarian or carnivore, republican or democrat. These habits are extremely destructive to relationships. Ask yourself the following questions. And if you are really adventurous, ask the people that know you best how they think you are doing in these areas. I dare you.
1. Are you moving towards your spouse when they ARE NOT around? This is more important than gifts, “love” languages, boundaries, date nights, sweet notes or house work. Ask yourself the following questions: Husbands-where is your heart when your team’s cheerleaders or dancers pop on the screen? Where is your heart when you are alone in front of your computer when no one else is around? Where are your eyes wandering at the gym? Where is your mind as you walk through the magazine section at the store? Wives-do you pollute your minds with images from movies like Magic Mike and books like Fifty Shades of Grey? Do you find yourself dressing in certain ways in certain places to get the attention of men? Are you using conversations with male coworkers or male friends to fulfill some need to feel wanted, pursued and special that you should be looking for from your husband?
All of these subtle instances provide opportunities to move toward your spouse or away from your spouse. Guard your heart and always ask “What need is being fulfilled in this interaction?” or “Is my heart…in this moment…connecting with my spouse’s heart, or is it disconnecting from my spouse’s heart?” “What are my true intentions?” Emotional affairs, or having your intimate, emotional needs met from others outside of your spouse, don’t happen suddenly overnight. Affairs simmer slowly and they start by allowing your heart to wander when your spouse is not around.
Are you guilty of The Four Horsemen? The Four Horsemen were created by Dr. John Gottman, who can predict with 90% accuracy within 10 minutes whether or not a marriage will end in the next 7 years. The following four high predictors of divorce are common ways in which we unknowingly wound our spouses.
2. Criticism: Unhealthy criticism is communicated by escalating words, or words that escalate the intensity of an argument to a place that is neither productive nor helpful. Escalators include “you,” “always” and “never” phrases like “YOU are so selfish!” “You NEVER take out the trash!” “But you ALWAYS watch the game on Sundays!” Our spouses immediately become defensive when hearing these words. It is a natural response to defend ourselves when we hear these phrases.
Another way we escalate disagreements is by using character assassination. This means attacking the person rather than the action. Instead of saying “I can’t believe you lied to me!” we attack the very core of our spouse’s soul when we say “You are a liar!” Saying “You aren’t acting like yourself. You are acting like a jerk.” is preferable to “You’re a jerk!” Address the action, not the character of your spouse.
3. Contempt: Contempt is any verbal or non verbal action that might communicate that you are utterly annoyed and disgusted by your spouse. Non verbals are just as hurtful as verbals, such as eye rolling, long, heavy sighs, under-the-breath mutterings, head shaking, fist clenching, teeth grinding, and smirking. The scary part is that most of us have no idea that we are doing these things, but our spouses either consciously or unconsciously notice them and internalize that contempt.
Verbal contempt is outright name calling, vicious put downs and, more subtly, making public jabs at your spouse while around others. An example would be, during a cooking conversation with friends, a husband saying, “Cook! Ha! I’ll never see my wife in the kitchen with a pot or pan!” These comments can be said in a joking manner with laughter, but they cut deep.
4. Defensiveness: This is most commonly done by cross complaining. When your spouse expresses a valid complaint against you in a respectful way, saying “You don’t like it when I do that? Well…what about when you do _______!” or “That bothers you! But you do that all the time!” These are attempts at deflecting blame and responsibility.
This also happens by one spouse trying to prove the other spouse wrong or that their feelings are invalid. Rather than defending your actions, sit with your spouse and their feelings. Validate that their feelings feel very real and powerful. There is no need to immediately defend your innocence and clear your name. There are many times when our spouses just need to be heard.
Listen to your spouse and meet them where they are. And then, if you have a problem with something your spouse does, bring it up when it happens, instead of waiting until a disagreement occurs later on to bring out your list of grievances. Defensiveness will discourage your spouse from ever wanting to share their feelings with you and will push you very far apart.
5. Stonewalling: Stonewalling is any way in which you ignore or disengage from your partner when a problem needs to be addressed. In men, we commonly see physical shut down. This means during a disagreement, a husband looking down at the ground with little or no eye contact, not speaking much at all, or simply saying “OK” to everything. Husbands also frequently retreat to another room or say “I can’t talk about this right now.”
In women, we typically see stonewalling manifested by withholding sex when they are upset about something as a punishment. Intentionally withholding intimacy trains husbands to not voice their concerns or feelings for fear they won’t be able to sexually engage. When husbands feel afraid to voice concerns, they feel powerless and commonly turn to pornography, which helps them feel in control and powerful, further distancing them from their wives.
Guilty of any of these? If so, we recommend seeking professional help from a licensed mental health professional to work on new ways of relating to one another and strengthening your marriage.
Written by Doug Chisholm, LPC