5 Surefire Ways to Kill a Relationship

... and how to step back from the brink.

Posted Sep 23, 2014

The self-help genre often offers up solutions to our issues without forcing us to reflect on what we’re actually doing and saying in our lives to cause those problems in the first place. So, in a contrarian mode, I’ve decided to detail what research knows to be some of the most toxic habits we bring into our relationships—even though we may not even be aware that we carry them.

[Of course, if you want to cut to the chase with a speedy means of destruction, just be unfaithful. That, not surprisingly, is the still the Number One torpedo to relationships and top cause of divorce, as a study by Paul R. Amato and Denise Previti showed. Infidelity was the cause of 21.6% percent of divorces the team studied, followed closely by incompatibility (19.2%), drinking or drug use (10.6%), growing apart (9.6%), personality problems (9.1%), and lack of communication (8.7 %). Physical or mental abuse, and loss of love, were singled out much less frequently—5.8% and 4.3%, respectively.]

It’s true enough that, day to day, all couples disagree and fight but research makes clear that it’s how we fight, and how often, that matters. The more such behaviors you see in your marriage—coming from either you or your spouse—the more slippery the slope. And, of course, focusing on how you resolve conflict alone isn’t the whole story: You need to ask yourself what you’re doing when you’re not fighting, too.

Keeping in mind relationship expert John Gottman’s now-famous 5:1 formula—that it takes five happy-making, restorative, and constructive moments to outweigh the effect of a destructive one—here are some of the behaviors that take us furthest from that ideal and most damage our relationships. If you want out, then by all means, do the following:

1. Personalize blame.

The formal name for this is “causal attribution.” Simply put, when something goes wrong, do you explain it by attributing it to your partner’s weaknesses, flaws, or characteristic behavior? Do you instantly make things personal because your sentences begin with the word “You"—“You never listen”; “You’re always too busy”; or, "This is so typical of you"?

The work of Frank Fincham and Thomas Bradbury demonstrates that this kind of attribution is highly damaging and that in a stable marriage, partners don’t make it personal but tend to explain what’s gone wrong in more general terms. Personalizing blame also is likely to elicit defensive behavior from your partner that, according to another study by Fincham and Steven Beach, will lead to a cycle of blame and defensiveness which often escalates without anyone really planning on it. In their paper they use a homely example many of you will recognize.

A couple gets into a car with a destination in mind—it could be a restaurant, a party, even a romantic getaway spot. You have, at the beginning, a shared goal: getting there. At some point, however, one or both of you realizes you’re on the wrong road. Suddenly, the goal shifts. The driver (in this case, the husband) asks the passenger (his wife) why she can’t read a map. She retorts that her map-reading skills are just fine but that he’s managed to miss a turn. He denies it, fiercely. She says he should stop and get directions. He won’t...

Yes, I know that a GPS device could theoretically subvert all of this but you get the point, and you don’t need to be in a car to experience this kind of altercation. Without ever consciously shifting goals, each member of the couple does in fact move away from the shared goal of wanting to get there, to blame, and finally, to self-defense. (Confession: This did once happen to me on a road in Maine where the exits are 50 miles apart.)

2. Withdraw at times of demand.

Imagine a couple in their living room. She is trying to engage her spouse in a discussion about what happened on Saturday night when she tried talking to him about how unresponsive he was and they got into a huge fight. She’s stewed about it for days and rehearsed what she's going to say but the longer she talks, the more his body language betrays his annoyance. He stays silent. His apparent withdrawal prompts her to try even harder, her voice rising, as she begs him to please respond. The harder she tries, though, the more he withdraws. Finally, he gets up and says, “I’m tired of this same old debate. I’m going out.”

This pattern is called demand/withdraw and it’s a robust predictor of marital dissatisfaction, depression, divorce, as well as physical abuse. To quote an article by Paul Schrodt and his co-authors, "Researchers, clinicians, and therapists generally agree that it represents one of the most destructive interaction patterns in interpersonal relationships.” Researchers have demonstrated that while both genders exhibit demand/withdraw patterns, the wife-demand/husband-withdraw occurs more frequently.

Years ago, this scenario was more commonly written off as a man having "a nagging wife,” and it was the subject of jokes, farce, and comedy—as well as deep marital discord. The reasons for the pattern are complicated and varied and may have roots in the disparate needs for intimacy and engagement in some couples, opposite sources of motivation (approach versus avoidance), attachment histories, and more.

It’s not hard to see why this cycle is so persistent and toxic because in it, both parties feel wronged, if for different reasons. The demand partner feels ignored, marginalized, and perhaps abandoned; the other feels put upon, barraged by criticism, and under fire. Getting off the carousel requires both parties to take a close look and to listen and, in the best of all possible worlds, work at developing new ways of communicating and reacting.

3. Stop asking or telling.

A famous study by Arthur Aron showed that the simple act of asking and answering 36 questions reliably increased the sense of closeness in dating couples. We all know from experience that storytelling and sharing are important parts of courtship and commitment. But it’s also true that, over time, some couples stop sharing their stories and/or stop being willing to listen to their partner's. It can happen for any reason or no reason—different schedules, childcare interruptions, the distraction of digital devices. Sometimes, though, familiarity does breed contempt when one partner begins to tell a story—it could be about a difficult co-worker or the behavior of one of the couple’s children, or any other subject—and the other says,” You’ve already told me that” or “That again?” Those responses effectively marginalize the speaker and are guaranteed to shut him or her down.

According to Gottman, positive communication in a successful marriage includes showing interest, showing that you care, showing concern and empathy, and being accepting, even when you don’t necessarily agree with your partner.

If you stop paying attention to what’s happening when you’re not fighting, you are clearly in trouble.

4. Practice lip-service forgiveness.

Here we find ourselves in the big bump territory of the often uneven road that is marriage, after a meaningful transgression—infidelity, for example, or a major lie—has altered the landscape. Forgiveness is a somewhat of a psychological thicket and, as has been widely noted by research, what constitutes “forgiveness” in layperson’s terms differs from the stance the field has generally taken. In the article, “Forgiveness in Marriage,” the co-authors note that forgiveness needs to be “distinguished from accepting, excusing, or condoning an offense.” Forgiveness is also more of a process than a single act. Despite all the illustrated platitudes about forgiveness that flash across your Facebook feed and mine, it’s a more complicated issue. The authors note that verbal statements of forgiveness “may not reflect true feelings” and that they happen often enough that they have a name: “hollow forgiveness.”

But even authentic forgiveness has its pitfalls for, as the authors noted:

“The words ‘I forgive you’ often signal the beginning of process for a speaker (of trying to forgive the transgression) but tend to be seen as the end of the matter by the offending partner—who is also likely to be only too willing to put the transgression in the past and act as if it never happened.”

Needless to say, all the other flawed ways of communicating play an important role in whether forgiveness is genuine and whether the commitment to the dyad can be renewed and go forward. As the authors write: “In the usual course of events, the victim spouse has to cancel a debt that is bigger than the one acknowledged by [the] transgressor spouse. Thus the transgressor spouse may see their partner’s reaction to the transgression as overblown and itself a wrongdoing.”

True forgiveness can’t be the act of a single partner in the marriage; both people have to renew their commitment to each other and the relationship in the context of a new landscape. Simply deciding, on your own, to forgive and forget likely won’t cut it.

5. Be a gatekeeper.

A universal stress point in relationships is the splitting of duties, chores, and responsibilities, especially when there are children involved. There's a body of research devoted to maternal gatekeeping, describing the situation when the mother holds onto and guards what is traditionally regarded as female territory, the tending of the home and children. This behavior, alas, may absolutely co-exist with a litany of complaints about how the mother's partner isn’t doing his share, that she’s overburdened, etc. That said, men gatekeep too. There’s no greater disincentive to doing the dishes than having someone re-wash the ones you’ve already done or to re-load the dishwasher because you haven’t done it efficiently. Because gatekeeping is often accompanied by a boatload of criticism and negativity, it’s highly destructive to many different aspects of a relationship.

If you’re bound and determined to be single again, you should hang on to as many of these behaviors as you can. But if, like most of us, you long for companionship and intimacy in an imperfect world, taking a close look at what you bring to the party may be the best way of staying together.

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  • Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994.
  • Fincham, Frank D. and Thomas N. Bradbury,” Assessing Attributions in Marriage: The Relationship Attribution Measure,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1992), vl.2, no.3, 457-468.
  • Fincham, Frank D., Gordon T. Harold, and Susan Gano-Philips, “The Longitudinal Association between Attributions and Marital Satisfaction,” Journal of Family Psychology (2000), vol.14, no,27, 267-285.
  • Fincham, Frank and Steven Beach, “Conflict in Marriage: Implications for Working with Couples,” Annual Review of Psychology, vol.40, 47-77 (February 1999), 48-91.
  • Fincham, Frank D., Julie Hall and Steven R.H. Beach, “Forgiveness in Marriage: Current Status and Future Directions,” Family Relations, 55 (October 2006), 415-427.
  • Schrodt, Paul, Paul L. Witt, and Jenna R. Shimkowski, "A Meta-Analytical Review of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern of Interaction and its Association with Individual, Relational, and Communicative Outcomes, Communication Monographs, 81,1 (April 2014), 27-58.
  • Allen, Sarah M. and Allan J. Hawkins, “Maternal Gatekeeping: Mother’s Beliefs and Behaviors that Inhibit Father Involvement in Family, Work,” Journal of the Marriage and Family, 6, no.1 (February 19919), 199-212. 

Copyright© Peg Streep 2014