Anyone who’s been with his or her partner for longer than a day knows that marriage has its ups and downs. But research by the Gottman Institute has shown that certain negative behaviors are more likely than others to result in divorce. “The basis of every good relationship is a strong sense of trust,” says Michael McNulty, PhD, Gottman Master Trainer with the Gottman Institute and director of the Chicago Relationship Center.
“The partners have to feel like, ultimately, they have each other’s backs when it comes to the inevitable differences that arise between people. All relationships have conflicts, but how you deal with them and find fair compromises is key.” Here are the top behaviors that tend to destroy marriages—and what you can do to counteract them:
Without question, it’s the worst of the worst behaviors. “Contempt is the number one predictor of divorce,” says Sinead Smyth, LMFT, Gottman Master Trainer with the Gottman Institute and therapist at East Bay Relationship Center in Alameda, California. “Contempt is defined as anything that puts down your partner or conveys your superiority in some way to the other person.” This includes using sarcasm or talking down to the person (“Of course you’d say that” or “You’re just like your father”), mocking them, or using non-verbal signs such as rolling your eyes or sneering.
Antidote: “Step back for a minute, and state your own needs. Do not attack or belittle the other person,” says Smyth. Instead, approach it from the standpoint of how to find a solution by saying something along the lines of, “I’m upset because we’ve talked about this before. I need to find a way for us to keep the house cleaner.”
We all have bad days when we’re cranky or short with our loved ones, but remarks that treat your partner as if he or she has a character flaw is a huge no-no, says McNulty. For example, using absolutes like the words “never” and “always,” such as “You are never on time,” or “You always forget to take out the trash” are critical comments (and they’re probably not entirely accurate anyhow).
Antidote: “When you live closely with another person, you’re going to have complaints,” says McNulty. “We all have things that are important to us, but how you approach the complaint is the issue. If you start the conversation negatively, it’s going to end negatively.” Try rephrasing your complaint by using a gentle statement that begins with “I,” not “you.” For example, say something such as “I feel so nervous/ upset/ embarrassed when you’re running late. Can you call or text me so I don’t worry?” or “I feel frustrated when the trash piles up. Can you help me out with that?”
It’s natural to want to strike back when we’re feeling bombarded by our partner, says McNulty. “If we’re feeling criticized, we may say things in response to our partner’s attack such as, ‘You’re wrong. I do always remember to pick up the dry-cleaning,’ or ‘You’re just being too picky.'” But defensiveness usually just escalates the situation.
Antidote: Take some responsibility—even if it’s just a small part of the problem and even if you don’t necessarily agree with the other person’s point of view. “The person wants you to relate to what they are saying. They want to be heard,” says McNulty. “The goal is collaboration.” Instead of launching a counter-attack, say something such as, “You know, I could be better about taking out the trash,” or “I really did forget to do that chore you asked and will try to do better next time.”
When you’re trying to have a conversation with your partner, it’s maddening if he or she is tuning you out—looking down, looking away, not engaging. But the reason for stonewalling typically is that that person is feeling overwhelmed by the subject matter or what you’re saying. Your partner doesn’t know what to do or how to respond, so he or she shuts down.
Antidote: Recognizing that the other person is feeling overloaded can help. In this situation, it’s fine for either you or your partner to say, “Let’s take a break right now,” says Smyth. If you’re the one feeling overloaded, say something like, “I want to hear what you’re saying, but I just walked in the door,” or “I’m too upset right now. Can we talk in a little bit?” Or if you sense your partner is feeling attacked, offer to return to the topic later. “The idea is to recognize the negative behaviors that are predictive of divorce and to use various tools as a couple to work against them,” says Smyth.