As a professional audience to relationship distress, I've discovered an enviable cache of relationship-destroying behaviors.
Over time, these behaviors can transform a thriving marriage into a brittle shadow of itself. You will likely find yourself somewhere in this list at some point. That's okay. No relationship is perfect. The real danger emerges as destructive behaviors coalesce and persist. If you find yourself somewhere in this post, it may be time to reach out for help.
Here is a list of the top ten ways to ruin a marriage or intimate relationship:
10. Stop fighting
Wait, what? Stop fighting? Yes, that's exactly what I mean. Although conflict is exhausting, it is also communication. Usually, couple distress is not rooted only in conflict style, but rather, one spouse's belief that the other no longer cares for her or him. Loneliness and apathy are the true relationship killers. Although your conflict may need to improve, arguments are better than indifference.
Of course, none of this matters if conflict ever reaches the point of abuse. There is a clear difference between these two.
However, if you find yourself in a consistent pattern of criticizing or feeling criticized, do not be surprised if the critical road is parallel to one that incites your partner to apathy. Hidden beneath criticism is usally a deep longing for connection. Yet, your partner usually will not see that softer longing because they'll be caught up in their own relationship destroyer: defensiveness.
8. Get defensive
Defensiveness doesn't sound so bad, does it? After all, it is my spouse or partner who is on the attack. Is it not my right to defend?
If you think about the concept of defensiveness, it tells an important secret. What, exactly, are you defending? Why do you feel the need to be defensive with someone with whom you should feel open and vulnerable? As a couple therapist, I encourage both partner have a care for how their actions provoke the other to respond. However, I also ask each partner to take responsibility for their own role in their couple drama regardless of how the other behaves.
Vulnerability, rather than defensiveness, is a balm to a wounded relationship. Just as there is usually a story of a broken heart behind a critical posture, a defensive disposition usually screams, "I don't know what to do here. Help me! I feel powerless against this attack." Provoke your partner's vulnerablity by modeling vulnerability. Exchange the defensive armor for naked emotional truth.
7. Work only one job
When I ask mothers how many jobs they work, I usually get one of a few different answers. Mothers who work outside the home usually say, "two." Mothers who work inside the home usually say, "one, but my work is never done." When I ask fathers how many jobs they work, they usually say, "one," and then go on to tell me all of their work's nuances that make it demanding.
The days of debating whether household tasks and nurturing children is a two-parent job should be long past. Research demonstrates that children thrive when parents share equitable household and child-raising responsibilities, even if one parent works inside the home full time. Kill resentment before it begins by sharing the responsibilities at home.
6. Stop touching
When I see a couple for the first time, I look for subtle resilience cues. Are they still touching? Do they still make eye contact? Do they strive for connection even though it is hard? When couples stop touching, it raises my hackles. Make a discipline out of touch even though it is hard. You send the message that you love and care for your partner, despite your distress.
5. Roll your eyes
Well, it's not exactly the rolling of the eyes that matters as much as it is what the eye rolling represents. This is one of those contemptuous behaviors that will put you on the fast track to relationship destruction.
Like criticism, contempt shrouds hopelessness, but unlike criticism, which hides positive edge if you dig deep enough, eye rolling and other disdainful behaviors simply say, "I have no desire to hear what you have to say because you mean so little to me." Instead of rolling your eyes, ask yourself what is going on beneath anger and contempt, and share that instead.
4. Make your kids more important than your marriage
Resist the urge to throw something at me and hear me out. As a parent, your animal instinct is to think of your children first. I would never think to rob you of that. Sometimes, however, in the midst of relational distress, parents tend to focus their energy on their children as a way to avoid the anxiety that exists between each other. "I'm here for the children," I've heard some say.
Children, however, should never bear the burden of their parents' relational distress. By putting your intimate relationship first, you communicate that your children are safe, secure, and cared for. In this way, you are ironically, putting your children's well being first. It's a win win.
This is why I encourage parents to embarrass their children with their affection.
3. Win all the time
Is one of your complaints about your spouse or partner that they always have to win? Chances are, they may make the same complaint. If you notice that your conflict style looks more like a presidential debate than an open dialogue, it is possible that you could be guilty of winning too much, which of course, in an intimate relationship, is really losing. A good starting point is simply to listen first.
2. Wait too long
One of my most common questions about therapy is, "When should I come in?". There is quite a simple explanation for this. How do you know when you should see a physician? When it hurts. The same logic applies to your relationship. Does it hurt? Then don't wait.
I cannot tell you how many times I have lamented starting to work with a couple that has waited far too long to get help. Think prevention.
1. Walk away
Couple therapists have their own thoughts about what really destroys an intimate relationship. This list evolves from a mix of my experience, what research reveals, and what I feel in my gut, which brings me to number 1.
Want to get on the fast track to the end of your relationship? Simply walk away.
Walk away from an argument. Walk away from your partner as she or he describes her or his day. Walk away from conflict. Walk away from crucial moments of celebration or distress. Walk away from intimacy.
In my opinion, there is no greater relationship killer than when you reach for your partner and you cannot find them. While every relationship is unique, when they reach their end, at least one person will decide that the other just stopped caring.
Partners walk away for a myriad of reasons. Most of the time, it is not because they don't care, but because they are scared. Of intimacy. Of not measuring up.
No relationship is risk-free. Resist the urge to walk away and muster the courage to face rejection or failure. Relationships are not about success, but striving and resilience.