A lot of research has gone into why marriages fail. There are so many different theories, it’s easy to become tangled in the web of information. Websites, blogs, news articles…they all purport to have answers that no one else has.
Heck, if you are reading this blog, you are doing so because you are looking for those same answers, and hoping to find them here. Amazingly, if you look at many of these resources, most will tell you that marriages fail due to infidelity, lack of communication, growing apart, addiction, lack of intimacy…there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of reasons.
Most of these just scratch the surface. This isn’t said to diminish or demean the pain caused by these relationship failures. But things like infidelity, lack of intimacy, etc., are often symptoms rather than the cause. But because these failings are so prevalent, and easily recognizable, it’s easy to just stop there and look no deeper.
That would be a mistake. Because there are deeper issues, and if you think that merely forgiving infidelity or practicing a scripted dialogue model will chip away at the underlying behaviors, then you may need to prepare yourself to revisit the same marital problems over and over again.
Generations Impacted by divorce
For nearly 50 years, marriages have been failing in record numbers. So much so, that roughly half of all marriages now end in divorce. It’s no longer much of a stigma, because all you have to do is look around you, and you literally have a 50/50 chance of seeing someone who has been through a divorce, and a significant percentage of people who have had two more more divorces.
Unfortunately, children of divorced couples don’t really have a solid role model for what a healthy, happy marriage looks like. And they may even pick up a few bad habits themselves, which just continues the cycle into future generations.
A predictable pattern
It is part of human nature to gravitate toward pleasure, and away from pain. I would eat chocolate before broccoli, any day. When we become unhappy in a relationship, our humanness searches for a way to ease the pain, which could be any number of vices: withdrawal from conflict, drinking, emotional or physical affairs, binge eating, gambling….anything that triggers the flood of brain chemicals that temporarily replace the pain of a struggling marriage with comfort and pleasure. Rinse and repeat.
Our desire to avoid pain is so great, that we’ll tip-toe around issues, and ignore signs and symptoms, in the hope that things will just magically get better. We don’t want the conflict involved in trying to improve or change them. By but not facing and dealing with these issues, we are establishing a pattern. A destructive one.
The Four Horsemen
So how do we stop the cycle? Well, for one, we have to have the courage to get to the root of the problem, and not just address the superficial symptoms. We also have to have the courage to lovingly teach our spouses how we want to be treated, and not accepting behavior that is hurtful.
Dr. John Gottman, founder of The Gottman Institute, has spent a lifetime researching marriage and relationships. He has identified four underlying behaviors that will predict the failure of a marriage almost 100% of the time, if not rectified. He calls these behaviors The Four Horsemen.
- Criticism – This behavior is personal. It goes far beyond merely a complaint. You can often recognize criticism because it is frequently couched in a generalization like “You NEVER….”, or “You ALWAYS…” These clear exaggerations are then often followed by a blanket character assassination, like “You are so selfish,” or you “You are so disrespectful.” The spouse doing the complaining has clearly been hurt by something, but attacking the character of the other spouse or making blanket generalizations is counter-productive. Instead of eliciting positive behavior changes, it just leads to Defensiveness or Stonewalling. There are better, more productive ways to address hurt feelings or express a complaint that does not demean the other person.
- Contempt – This behavior is usually the final nail in the coffin of a marriage. It is much more heinous than criticism because it comes from a place of superiority. And it’s just plain mean. When one spouse tries to make the other an inferior, it does so much harm to the relationship. How can a marriage be an equal partnership when one spouse thinks they are smarter, better looking, a better parent, better bread-winner, etc.? Communicating with contempt shows a lack of respect, and can often be found in petty behaviors like name-calling and eye-rolling.
- Defensiveness – A defensive posture is one of deflection. It’s an aggressive way of trying to diffuse a situation by deflecting attention and criticism back to the other spouse in order to avoid dealing with the issue head on. Remember, we are innately creatures that avoid painful situations, and this is one way to do it. It’s a protective measure. Unfortunately, if one spouse is behaving badly, compounding the situation does further harm, and does nothing to teach the other spouse how you want to be treated.
- Stonewalling – This behavior boils down to a complete communication shut down. A stonewalling spouse is effectively shutting out the other spouse entirely, again as a defense mechanism to ward off discomfort and pain. If this behavior becomes habitual, it may just escalate the behavior of the spouse, who may just be trying to feel heard and understood. Complete and utter avoidance is toxic to a marriage, because it precludes any kind of healthy communication, and can cause a complete disconnection from the other spouse.
If you are reading the descriptions of the Four Horsemen, and saying “yeah, that’s my spouse,” you are missing part of the point. Your spouse may indeed be engaging in any or all of these behaviors, but the point is that these behaviors feed off each other. It takes two people doing this dance to effectively kill a marriage. And often times what we tend to see in others what is mirrored within ourselves.
Let me say that a different way, because it is so incredibly important. The faults and failings we see in others are often our own faults and failings reflected back at us. Assigning blame or failing to recognize our own culpability is another avoidance technique. To avoid the hard work of fixing ourselves, we assume that just fixing our spouse will fix the marriage. Not so. It’s easy to blame, and much more difficult to see your own responsibility.
Is there hope? Absolutely. Change starts with you. You can’t control your spouse’s behavior, but you can control yours. Change the conversation. If your spouse is behaving badly, instead of responding in kind, respond with compassion and understanding. It may be hard, and uncomfortable. We certainly aren’t wired to walk willingly toward uncomfortable situations. While it’s ultimately essential that both spouses work on culling this behavior, one of you must at least make the first step to break the vicious cycle.
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