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Relationships

Four Behaviors that Set a Marriage on the Wrong Path

| 09/07/2022

Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

Whether the wonder and stress of a wedding day is near or long past, the real effort of connecting with your married partner is an on-going choice. Marriage takes work, even with the easiest of connections. It’s more than sticking around during the good times and bad, it’s a life-long commitment to work together to build the good times and learn to survive the bad times.

Building those good times and surviving the bad together comes down to a choice: can you remain curious about yourself, your partner, and the marriage?

When we’re convinced we have it all figured out we can no longer learn and receive. We get comfortable in the relationship and that’s usually when mistakes are made. And that’s the nature of these mistakes—they’re so small we don’t notice until we’re a few or more in and our choices are compounding.

Here are four seemingly small, but mighty behaviors that can set a marriage on the wrong path:

Missed Connection

“Bids” for affection is the stuff that keeps a healthy relationship connected and vibrant. A “bid” for affection is a request to connect with our partner that can be small or big, verbal or nonverbal. Be it striking up a conversation, asking questions, or actively listening, it’s an act that reveals we’re invested. 

John Gottman’s famous “Love Lab” revealed that marriages aren’t made or broken by the content of a conversation, rather, they’re ultimately determined by how attentive or inattentive a couple is during a conversation or activity. 

Dismissing or rejecting a “bid” can appear harmless, but it begins to erode the connection between a couple. Overtime, these behaviors communicate to the dismissed or rejected partner that their need for connection is a low or non-priority in the relationship. Couples that consistently miss these “bids” to connect build long-term disconnect, distrust, and resentment.

Meanwhile, healthy couples that consistently create and receive these “bids” to connect build long-term connection, trust, vulnerability, and passion. 

We’re human and we’re bound to miss a “bid” now and again, but strengthening our ability to regularly read and receive them is how we sustain and grow a deeper connection. 

Keeping the Peace

Marriage is rooted in a mutual trust that you and your partner are looking out into the world in the same direction. That you both choose to build in that particular direction. Building a life together invites all sorts of complexities and responsibilities, and couples must learn how to communicate their vulnerabilities to make shared decisions.

The cornerstone of healthy communication is a shared vulnerability. Sometimes healthy communication can take the shape of the stressful, the difficult, and the frightening. These uncomfortable feelings can be misinterpreted as signs to avoid a conversation or withhold an emotion from our partner. We rationalize that if we avoid vulnerability then we avoid the pain of the unknown, like facing our partner’s reaction.

Withholding vulnerability only works until the married couple is faced with making one of the many shared decisions they will need to make together. This behavior undercuts the shared life that’s being built because many of these decisions require us to share our vulnerabilities with our partner. How can we trust we’re looking out into the world in the same direction when we’re emotionally hiding from each other?

Vulnerability is scary, but the uncomfortable feelings that surface are invitations to move towards our partner. Real courage lies in feeling this discomfort and still choosing to be vulnerable, and in receiving our partner’s vulnerability too. 

It’s tempting to dance around the tough conversations to keep the peace in marriage, but sharing in a life dream means learning to dance through the tough conversations, together. 

The Four Horsemen

Tension and conflict are part of the rhythm of any marriage, but the way we communicate tension is what invites or repels our partner to communicate with us. Trust and connection are at the heart of any relationship, but we erode these qualities when we express tension and conflict using the ‘“four horsemen.” If gone unchecked, these negative communication styles create an emotional distance that can eventually break a marriage.

Criticism: criticizing a partner is an attack on their character. And routine criticism not only dismantles your partner’s being, it invites the other ‘horsemen’ into the relationship. A healthy marriage can express complaints without criticizing one another, like using “I feel” statements. 

Contempt: treating a partner with contempt is intended to make them feel worthless. It also assumes a sense of superiority over them. Contempt is born from long-held negative thoughts about a partner, and is the greatest predictor of divorce. A healthy marriage can express negative thoughts and experiences while respecting and even appreciating their partner. 

Defensiveness: meeting a partner’s concern with defensiveness says that their concern is of low or non-priority to us. It also says we won’t take responsibility, which only furthers the conflict between partners. A healthy marriage can share differing perspectives and take accountability to repair. 

Stonewalling: stonewalling a partner shuts down the conversation, and ultimately, the connection. It’s usually the result of feeling contempt for our partner and being emotionally flooded in the conflict. A healthy marriage can allow space to separate and self-soothe and then reconvene to reconnect.

When we can find romance in the small moments we might be surprised by ourselves, our partner, and the relationship as we better navigate the different seasons of a marriage.

Funny enough, conflict has the power to bring us closer together. Unlearning the “four horsemen” shifts conflict from a battle to be won and into an opportunity to build a bridge of understanding.

Repair in Disrepair

Conflict is inevitable, and learning to “fight fair” is one healthy approach to moving through it. But an equally valuable, and often overlooked, part of the conflict resolution is repair. Repair doesn’t imply a relationship is broken, rather, it’s in need of a shared effort to find connection again. 

Repairs are the verbal and nonverbal efforts a couple makes and receives to de-escalate tension during and after conflict. This skill reinforces trust and intimacy, turning conflict into an invitation to understand each other. From “I feel” statements, getting to a yes, or separating to self-soothe and then reconvene, repairs transform a win-lose dynamic into a win-win.

Couples that fail to repair early and often during conflict experience this win-lose dynamic because their partner becomes the adversary. Couples that begin repair early and often during conflict see their partner as part of the solution. In fact, repair is so effective that a marriage can survive the “four horsemen” if both partners master this skill. 

Repairs are uniquely beautiful in that they vary from relationship to relationship. Discovering the best strategies for your relationship can become a shared adventure into deepening your vulnerability.

It’s tempting to think a grand gesture is the romantic salve for any of these relationship woes. After all, they transform any on-screen relationship from rocky to destined. But marriage isn’t built on the occasional grand gesture, it’s nurtured through daily acts of kindness, respect, and attention.

When we can find romance in the small moments we might be surprised by ourselves, our partner, and the relationship as we better navigate the different seasons of a marriage.

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