How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Marriage

 

I have noticed over the 30 plus years that I have been in practice that the ruin of most marriages does not happen because one or both partners are thinking rationally and deliberately about what they are doing to themselves or to their partners. Rather the process of ruin appears to be almost entirely automatic, especially at the start. Perhaps it is because couples do not think about what they are doing that, according to John Gottman’s research, it takes an average of six years of conflict before a couple enters counseling. Thus, it occurs to me that couples would not have to suffer so long in conflict if they knew more about that automatic process of ruin. It has also been my observation that that process involves only two steps.

Violating the trust of your partner is the first step in the process of ruining a marriage. That violation can range from an affair to a frequent failure to be on time. You do not have to limit yourself to those expectations that have been openly discussed and agreed upon. Many years ago I saw a cartoon in which a bride and groom were standing before a minister. Each had balloons above their heads indicating they were thinking. Her balloon read, “Great, now I don’t ever have to have sex again!” His balloon read, “Great, now I can have sex anytime I want!” Some expectations we are not even aware we have. As a result of growing up in the families that we did, we learned to do things in certain ways “because that is the way they are done.” However, no two families do things in exactly the same way. For example, in my family of origin affection was often shown by teasing. However, in my wife’s family of origin teasing was considered hostile. By teasing my wife, I can violate both her expectations and mine. She will not show the appreciation and affection that my behavior was intended to trigger.

Once a trust is perceived as violated, the couple can begin the second step toward ruining their marriage. I think it is important to note that it is not essential to this process of ruin that the trust actually be violated. A simple misunderstanding or one’s own anxiety (often expressed as a belief or something one just knows) that a trust has been or will be violated is all that is really necessary. One person I know was able to ruin several close relationships just knowing that her partner was going to eventually leave her. (She didn’t even wait to get married.)

Fighting begins the second step in the process of ruining a perfectly good marriage. However, contrary to a long standing belief in our society, including the mental health community, fighting itself is not ruinous to a marriage. To site Gottman’s research again, the important thing is not whether or not a couple fights or even how they fight. Ruin is greatly facilitated if the couples limits their fights to the purely emotional as opposed to the rational and factual. For most couples in the process of destroying their relationship, it is quite natural to maintain an emotional fight.

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There are five reasons for this automatic tendency to maintain an emotional fight: 1) Our first line of defense is the emotional reaction. We do not think about what made the loud noise behind us, and, having gathered the facts about the noise’s source, rationally consider which of several options would be our best response to it. We just jump.2) When our emotions are aroused, it is difficult to stop them, to think rationally.3) Once aroused, our emotional reactions tend to escalate quickly, and those around us, including our spouses, tend to pick up our feelings. In that way, each partner escalates the other’s emotional reactivity. 4) It is my observation that most of us can not tell the difference between emotional reactivity and rational thinking, between a feeling and a fact. (As I said earlier, it is enough that you feel your trust has been or will be violated. It doesn’t really have to be violated.) Because we do not seem to be able to differentiate between emotional reactivity and rational thinking, it is all the more difficult for us to interrupt that reactivity once it has started. It feels like reasonable thought. 5) Because most of us can not tell the difference between feeling and fact, we believe that we see and hear evidence that our trust has been violated when that may not be true objectively. How many times have we known that something was true only to find out later that we were mistaken, that we did not have all the facts or that we had misunderstood the facts? Certainly, such a mistake can occur when we are thinking rationally, but I find it occurs much more frequently when we are emotionally reactive.

In other words, the second step toward ruining a perfectly good marriage begins with steadfastly holding onto an emotional fight. However, the most important part of the second step is never resolving the fight. As long as one or both partners is dissatisfied with the outcome of the fight, the trust is still violated, and the fight continues even though neither partner may ever speak of the issue again. Indeed, if you do not speak of the issue again, you are almost assured that the fight, the emotional reactivity, will continue indefinitely. If you do not discuss the issue, there is little chance that facts can be introduced that might change your perception of being violated.

Another way to think about an unresolved issue is that one or both of you feels you have lost a part of yourself, of who you believe you are. As the number of unresolved issues increases, as one or both of you feels you have given up still more of self, your resentment and anger grows on at least one side of the relationship; and you become increasingly more distant. Furthermore, each unresolved issue or loss of self reinforces your ruinous behavior. If you are the one who gives up self, you tend to believe there is nothing else you can do in a conflict but give up self. If you did not give up self, you probably feel that you won or that you were right. As a result, you tend to repeat your behavior as if it was the magic cause of your victory. As the pattern continues, the resentment and distance between you and your partner increases. An otherwise perfectly good marriage is ruined a little more with each repeat of the pattern. While it is true that the behavior pattern I described here is automatic, can start without fore thought and maintain itself, think what even one of you might accomplish if you thought rationally about your behavior rather than waiting for it to play itself out automatically.

If you are going to deliberately and thoughtfully work on the ruin of your perfectly good marriage, then I believe that you need to know the signs that tell you that you are headed in the right direction, in a downward spiral. Without early signs that you are successfully ruining your marriage, you are apt to become discouraged and give up all thoughtful efforts; thus leaving your marriage to the mercy of your automatic processes. As already noted, our automatic processes, while very helpful when we do not have time to think rationally, are not as efficient or effective as deliberately thought through behaviors can be. According to John Gottman, Ph.D. who has spent over twenty years researching marriages in an effort to learn what makes them work or not work, there are several signs that definitely signal that your marriage is headed for ruin. Gottman reported in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail that unhappy marriages “share one overriding similarity: they follow the same, specific, downward spiral before coming to a sad end.” (1994, p. 71) That spiral, he said, consisted of four stages.

The first of those downward spiraling stages is not complaining despite a great deal of popular belief to the contrary. I find that many people think complaining will cause their partner distress and will disrupt their marriages. While voicing a complaint is scary for many people, and may cause some stress in the listener, if it is done correctly, it is simply an effort to present your partner with the fact that you are unhappy about something specific. A complaint is factual rather than speculative or judgmental. In that way its intention is to inform rather than to injure or insult. It is focused on specific behavior, usually within a specific time period, or on an issue rather than on an individual’s characteristics. A good complaint will present how the complainer is feeling but not comment on the feelings or character of the other person. It will not pass judgment on or interpret the behavior of the other. A complaint sounds like “I’m very upset that you didn’t help me clean the house today in preparation for our dinner party as I had asked.” It is not a complaint, but rather a criticism to say, ” You’re so lazy. You never do anything around here.” To say, “You’ll sleep with anyone who smiles at you,” is not a complaint but a criticism also. The complaint might sound like “I can not be in a relationship that is not monogamous.” A complaint is a response to an annoyance, frustration, or anger. In that way, a complaint can facilitate the possibility that the problem will be corrected or at least understood, that it will, in some way, be resolved. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way, but if you are trying to ruin your marriage, why take the risk? In fact, mental health professionals have long been clear that complaints can save a marriage as well as the sanity of at least the complainer. Gottman described complaints as “one of the healthiest activities that can occur in a marriage.” (1994, p. 73) I believe that we automatically, without thinking about it, step beyond complaining, that we resort to criticism, when we feel that our complaints have not been or will not be heard or responded to the way we would like. Please forgive me for taking so much space to write about something that is actually considered constructive in an article focused on the destruction of a marriage. However, I do not want you to waste your time thinking that your complaints are indications that you are succeeding in ruining your perfectly good marriage.

According to John Gottman’s research the first sign that your marriage is on a downward spiral is criticism. He explained that criticism involves “attacking someone’s personality or character–rather than a specific behavior–usually with blame.” (1994, p.73) An individual can express criticism in many ways: “You always do x” or “You never do x.” “You’re selfish.” “You’re mean.” “You should or shouldn’t do x.” Another way to criticize is to present your partner with several problems or criticisms and thus overwhelm him or her. The value of criticism is that it tends to overwhelm both you and your partner by presenting the problem as larger than it is with words like “always” and “never.” It also tends to remove from both of your minds the thought that there might be anything redeemable about your partner or the relationship or marriage. Finally, a criticism strongly invites your partner to defend him or herself. That defensiveness, an automatic emotional reaction to criticism which is very hard for most people to resist engaging in, is intended to protect. Automatic protection does not facilitate rational thinking, understanding, cooperation, or even listening. As a result, any discussion that you can begin with criticism or at least introduce criticism into is almost guaranteed to add to the deterioration of your marriage. If you or your partner are routinely criticizing one another, you can be sure that you have started down that ruinous spiral. However, be aware that this is just the beginning and if you do not move along into the next stages of Gottman’s downward spiral, you can exist at this stage for many years. In such a case, you and your partner will be unhappy but never experience the full effects of a ruined marriage. In fact, you can recover from this stage relatively easily. However, the longer a couple has been using criticism, the more difficult it is to reverse the process.

The second stage of the downward spiral that Gottman describes is contempt. He explained that contempt is criticism with “the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner.” (1994, p. 79) It may include a) insults, b) name calling, c) hostile humor, d) mockery, and e) facial expressions such as sneering, rolling your eyes, and curling your upper lip. (1994, pp. 80-81) The value of contempt is that it replaces any thoughts or memories of positives about your partner or the relationship. At the same time, the contemptuous one does not look or sound terribly attractive either. It is not surprising then that the more contempt is used in a relationship, the fewer compliments are heard. Even if only one partner is using contempt in the relationship, both partners may forget why they wanted to be married in the first place. (1994, p. 79) Another feature of this stage is that both partners can become so involved in showing their contempt for the other that they lose track of what the original complaint was, and then, of course, they are unable to even consider fixing the problem, though at this point in the downward spiral they usually do not care to fix anything except, perhaps their partner’s proverbial clock. While this stage also can be reversed, it is more difficult to avoid ruin once a couple has gone this far in the process.

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The third sign that Gottman’s research identified in the ruinous downward spiral of a marriage is defensiveness. It is a natural or automatic response to contempt if not to criticism or to complaint (which is so much not a sign in the spiral that it can actually help a couple avoid ruin). Defensiveness is a very effective response in the ruin of a perfectly good marriage because, if done correctly, it shifts the responsibility for whatever your spouse is accusing you of off of you. Often you may use defensiveness in an attempt to shift responsibility to your partner either for what your partner is complaining about or for something entirely unrelated. The latter adds a bit of confusion to the conflict and often without your partner becoming fully conscious of it because they quickly shift into their own defensive mode and retaliate automatically. Examples of defensive shifts might be “You do the same thing.” Or “I only did that because you did x.” Another defensive maneuver is to make excuses that shift the responsibility off yourself and onto circumstances presumably beyond your control. An example is, “It wasn’t my fault that I was late. Traffic was bad.” (Traffic may have been bad, even unexpectedly so, but you were still late, and your reference to the traffic is defensive. A non-defensive statement would be to simply say you were sorry you were late. Be aware that that only works once, maybe twice before it too becomes defensive and sounds like you’re saying that it’s not really your fault that you’re late so often.) I suspect that many use defensiveness hoping to reduce their vulnerability to criticism, contempt, or responsibility for upsetting their partners. However, I do not see defensiveness working that way in the long run, if at all. It escalates the fight by frustrating your partner who, hearing your defensiveness, feels that you are not taking his or her concerns seriously and are trying to avoid responsibility. In such a case, your defensiveness will probably automatically draw further criticism, contempt, and counter-defensiveness from your partner, thus it interferes with the two of you resolving the issue. That reactivity is a very good indicator that your efforts to ruin your marriage are headed in the right direction. It prolongs the conflict between the two of you, even if it causes that conflict to become less open and direct. Your defensiveness may also escalate the fight by confusing your partner, as already noted, into dealing with the new focus that you presented; thus adding another topic to the fight and often causing both of you to forget what the original issue was. Such changing of the issues you are fighting about and confusion further impedes your chances of resolving any of those issues. As is true of the earlier two signs (criticism and contempt), this third sign of the ruinous spiral of a perfectly good marriage can be reversed or backed off from, however, it is quite difficult and time consuming to do so because at this point in the process so much damage has been done to the relationship on both sides.

The fourth sign in Gottman’s downward spiral is that he calls stonewalling, others might call it withdrawal. In this stage, one partner stops responding to the other. If you are the stonewaller, you make neither a verbal nor a physical response that you have heard your partner. In some cases, as the stonewaller, you may even leave your partner by walking out of the room or even out of the house. Gottman’s research shows that men are the primary stonewallers. He notes that men’s pulse rates as well as their blood pressure tend to rise faster during marital conflict than do women’s (1994, p. 95). This automatic physical response indicates that men tend to feel overwhelmed faster than women in the same marital conflict. This feeling of being overwhelmed results for all humans in automatic release of a series of hormones.

The effect of these stress hormones on the body are all of the following

1) increased heart rate

2) redirected blood from the extremities (fingers and toes) (which results in a cold or tingling sensation in those extremities to the large muscle groups (especially the legs but also the arms)

3) rapid breathing

4) increased sweating

How severe or noticeable these changes are is determined by how serious the stress is to the individual and how long he or she is exposed to the stress. The automatic response to these changes, to feeling overwhelmed, is to protect oneself. One protective response is to withdraw, another is to lash out either verbally or physically. Gottman also noted that “wives’ heart rates go up dramatically when their husbands stonewall them.” (1994, . 95) That would suggest that women at least approach overwhelm when faced with a stonewaller. While wives could automatically withdraw at that point, they may resort to another automatic response. They may become more confrontational in an attempt to draw their husbands out from behind their walls. Of course, a husband’s automatic response to his wife becoming more confrontational is an increase in his feeling of overwhelm which may increase his efforts to withdraw or stonewall or may lead to him lashing out verbally or physically. In other words, both the husband and the wife work together automatically, without rational thought about what they are doing, to increase the other’s stress level and further ruin their chances of resolving the issue. Gottman’s research also shows that husbands are less affected physiologically by their wives stonewalling them. Thus, while a wife may withdraw, the husband is less likely to pursue her than the other way around. The consequence of a wife withdrawing and the husband not pursuing may be the appearance of a reduction in the tension in the marriage at that time. However, nothing has happened to resolve the issue between the partners; so it is buried which allows it to fester and grow until a later conflict when it may either resurface as in “And another thing….” or it may subtly fuel the couple’s anger and frustration with one another. One couple that I worked with said they did not understand why their fights were so intense; in fact, their fights were becoming increasingly more intense as time went on. When I asked if they had ever resolved any of their fights, they spoke emphatically and in unison saying, “No!” In effect, they were stockpiling their anger from one fight to be used in the next fight. Such stockpiling has several effects on the ruin of a marriage. As the intensity of their fights increase the couple becomes more convinced that they are unable to get through to their partner, they are unable to resolve an issue. Also, the increased intensity leads to faster overwhelm and stonewalling which spirals the marriage downward toward ruin even faster. While stonewalling works quite well automatically, think what you could do if you were aware of your partner’s level of overwhelm at the time or if you never let your partner move away from the stress. Of course, you might have to take a few bumps, but they would most certainly speed the process of ruining your marriage.

I find it interesting to note that our reactions to feeling overwhelmed and to stonewalling are not uniquely human. Michael McGuire, Ph.D., a naturalist, reported that he ran an experiment with vervet monkeys that revealed what happens when they do not get social feedback (are stonewalled). He placed a dominate or alpha monkey in a sound proof container with a one way mirror that allowed the dominate monkey to observe the behavior of several of his subordinate monkeys without them being aware of his presence. In that situation, the subordinate monkeys’ behaviors would not be influenced by the alpha. When the alpha monkey experienced his signals to his subordinates being ignored, his Serotonin level dropped significantly. Serotonin, a chemical in the brains, affects the individual’s mood in both humans and monkeys. McGuire went on to say that when the dominate and subordinate monkeys were reunited, the dominate monkey physically attacked the subordinate one he felt had ignored his signals. (April 2002) McGuire’s observations suggest not only how distressing stonewalling can be, but also how deeply rooted in our evolutionary past our reactions to feeling overwhelmed may be.

A couple can recover from stonewalling. However, their relationship is in such a state of ruin by the time they reach that point in their interactions with one another that it is extremely difficult for them to interrupt their automatic responses either of stonewalling or to stonewalling. And , of course, the longer the stonewalling goes on, the harder it is to interrupt the pattern.

The warning signs described above are just some of those that John Gottman, Ph.D., has found indicate that a marriage is on the road to ruin. However, if you observe even one of these signs in your marital relationship, you can be pretty certain that something you are doing, deliberately or automatically, is effectively ruining your perfectly good marriage. I believe that it is useful to know the effects of what you are doing because you can not always count on your partner to take the marriage in the direction that you want it to go. All that remains once you have observed one of these signs is to notice what you do or think that encourages those behaviors that signal ruin and do more of the same.

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