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The Four Things that Will Destroy a Relationship or Marriage

People assume that infidelity is the worst thing you can do in a relationship. But a strong and healthy relationship/marriage can survive even this. Gottman and Silver, authors of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, are experienced marriage counsellors. They have learned what makes marriages last and what destroys a marriage beyond repair. The clues to figuring out whether your marriage is salvageable are in the way that you argue. All couples, even happily married couples will argue.

As psychologist Dan Wile, author of After the Honeymoon, states: “When choosing a long-term partner…you’ll inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you’ll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty or fifty years.” Yet, as Gottman and Silver say, “Despite what many therapists will tell you, you don’t have to resolve your major marital conflicts for your marriage to survive.”

But you do have to learn how to make light of your conflicts. Bring humor to the situation and find a way to live with them. For me, realizing that I didn’t have to solve all our differences was helpful. Ultimately, my husband has many more good qualities than bad, and underneath our differences, there is a solid foundation of mutual respect. 

What are the signs of trouble in a relationship? 

Gottman and Silver have identified the four destroyers to a good relationship. They call them the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. So dangerous to a healthy, loving relationship are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. 

First, you have to distinguish complaints from criticism.

You’ll always be able to find something to complain about in any relationship. But if complaints turn into criticism, this is one of the first signs that you are heading for relationship problems. According to Gottman, “A complaint only addresses the specific action at which your spouse failed. A criticism is more global—it adds on some negative words about your mate’s character or personality.” A complaint – “Hey, you didn’t take the trash out last night as agreed,” becomes a criticism if you add in a bit of character assassination as well, “You are so lazy.” 

Contempt is the second horseman, which clip clops right along with sarcasm and cynicism.

Contempt includes eye-rolling, mocking, name-calling, sneering and belligerence. All are obviously deadly to a happy, healthy, and loving relationship. 

The third horseman is defensiveness.

While it seems natural to defend yourself if you are criticized, defensiveness escalates the conflict without resolution. I had reached a point in my own relationship where I thought there was no point in arguing or discussing things because we never moved forward or came to a positive resolution. Why bother arguing if it doesn’t lead to change and just makes us feel badly towards each other? But what if your partner feels that arguing clears the air and releases pent up negativity and emotions?

I had to learn that every argument doesn’t mean we are headed toward imminent divorce. My own parents got divorced when I was 13, so I always worry that could happen. My default thinking is that arguments end in divorce, which clearly isn’t true. All or nothing thinking isn’t conducive to a successful relationship. I’ve had to learn that having a few arguments doesn’t mean we are headed for divorce.

The final horseman is stonewalling.

Stonewalling is when one partner closes down and tunes out the other. This usually occurs after many rounds of escalating criticism, contempt and defensiveness. This often occurs over a period of years, as negativity builds up in a relationship and neither person is able to resolve the issues or find ways of communicating in a healthy, constructive manner. Stonewalling is also a way of protecting yourself from a barrage of criticism or contempt. If you lack communication tools, you might feel that your only option is to stonewall and close your partner out completely. 

In healthy relationships and good marriages, there will be conflict and arguments and even irreconcilable differences. The key is to put in place clear and firm boundaries from the beginning of a relationship. This will allow you to nip the criticism in the bud early on. It will also enable you to never allow criticism to morph into more deadly forms of communication that will destroy the love you have for each other. Stop those horsemen from getting in the door! 

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