Three Destructive Dynamics to Recognize in Your Marriage
Destructive dynamics that are toxic to relationships.
Posted Jan 04, 2021
There are a number of dynamics that are incompatible with a viable and loving marriage or long-term relationship, starting with distrust, disrespect, and disinterest. They are relationship killers, in more ways than one. They may slowly break the heart and soul of a bond and cause the actual breakup and end of a marriage.
To distrust someone is to doubt their honesty or reliability, to regard them with suspicion. For partners to expose their authenticity, dare to grow, share their fears, access fantasy — they have to feel safe in the bond. Distrust disqualifies safety.
Distrust in a relationship can result from a number of sources: A partner’s refusal to share pertinent information regarding family, job, history, etc.; hidden use of joint funds; unrealistic withholding of information about friends or activities; addictions with increasing desperation and need for secrecy and most commonly, the actual rupture of the commitment with an affair.
Distrust and the Affair. For many, the exposure of the affair becomes the reason to end the relationship — there is no wish to trust again. In fact, the most common “final straw” contributing to divorce is infidelity.
Some couples, in the aftermath of an affair, make attempts at apology, reconciliation, and repair. For some, there is a rebuilding of trust with mutual goals and professional help. For others, the attempt to quickly “get over” the affair is derailed by more breaks in commitment and/or the inability to regain trust.
A common painful option is the couple’s mutual denial of both the affair and the distrust. This is the situation where the affair is the “unspoken known” in the relationship. The fear is that there will be no way back if the affair is acknowledged.
Psychologically, the reverse is often true. When the affair can’t be acknowledged, it can’t be addressed. The silence about an affair leaves a scar of distrust and often a sense of shame suffered by both partners. When there is no acknowledgment, there is no understanding of the affair, no shared pain and remorse, and no opportunity to heal beyond the affair. There is no opportunity to reset the feeling of being safely loved again.
Unwarranted Distrust. Some relationships are slowly destroyed by distrust that is unwarranted. Driven by childhood betrayal, an earlier relationship rupture, or difficulty regulating emotions and self-esteem, the distrusting partner simply cannot trust a compliment, his/her partner’s friends at the office, efforts to spend time with other couples, etc. Everything is questioned and misconstrued with fear. Distrust persists regardless of apology and change. A viable relationship becomes impossible.
When this dynamic permeates a relationship, it warrants professional help for the couple and/or the individual partner whose perspective may be driven by an emotional problem or clinical disorder.
It can be difficult to capture the nature and impact of disrespect in a relationship because it can be as subtle as it is toxic. Well-hidden under excuses, a partner may fail to know how hurtful his/her behavior or comments may be to their partner and how destructive to their bond:
“You know I was kidding when I told them that you failed the driving test again.”
“I know you love what you do — I just think everyone finds statistics very boring.”
As noted in the definition above, disrespect is synonymous with contempt. Disrespect or contempt is reflected in the behavior of someone who embarrasses their partner, speaks across them, mocks or ignores them, looks at the phone whenever the partner is sharing something, shows disrespect in body language like rolling eyes, corrects or ignores their partner in public and is unable to recognize, apologize, or attempt to change his/her behavior. Psychologist John Gottman, who has observed thousands of couples in his marriage lab, has said he was able to predict with 90% accuracy which couples would be divorced when followed up five years later. Based on his research, Gottman identifies four negative communication patterns that predict divorce — criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Important in terms of the destructive dynamics identified here is Gottman’s identification of contempt as the most destructive and the most predictive of divorce: “It’s impossible to build connection when your relationship is deprived of respect.”
Disinterest is a deal-breaker in a relationship. Most partners would rather have someone angry at them than disinterested in them.
Disinterest refers to the loss of interest in the other as the special one in your life, the soulmate, the insider who knows and loves you even if you are different in a number of ways:
“Dad, why don’t you ever come to see Mom run in the races?”
“There is no point in my going to your family’s party — I have nothing in common with them.”
Disinterest is incompatible with affirmation, compassion, passion, desire, and intimacy. The disinterested partner has stopped listening, laughing, flirting, or touching with interest and expectation. Sex may be possible but it is obligation, compliance, or routine.
“She just stopped being interested. We never laughed. There was no more fun. Eventually, connection stopped mattering.”
“I think it ended when the outside world became more important than each other. When the kids left for school, we stopped even trying. We had become strangers."
“When someone’s genuinely interested in you, they consistently demonstrate their interest and leave you in no doubt about it." —Nat Lue, Baggageclaim
Recognition of what is destructive in your relationship is the most important step to change.