Protect Your Marriage: Eliminate These 4 Toxic Interactions

By Jamie C Williamson, PhD

I’ve been working with couples who resolved to make one final effort to restore the happiness in their marriage. They sincerely want to try, but also don’t want to prolong the pain or keep rehashing the same tired arguments.

So, they begin by asking “How do we know if it is too late for us to save our marriage?”

That question can’t be answered in generalities because the “too late” threshold varies depending on the DNA of each individual marriage. But, certain types of negative interactions produce telltale signs that a couple is headed for relationship demise. These negative patterns are so toxic that they can (and often do) destroy a relationship.

John Gottman refers to these negative interactions as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. The worst of these is contempt.

Are these toxic interactions present in your marriage?

1. Criticism

Criticism is best understood when compared to a complaint. Complaints address a specific behavior, while criticism attacks a person’s character or personality.

Complaint: “I’m glad you’re home. But, the last hour has been hard on me. I get scared when you’re running late and don’t let me know. Can we agree that we won’t do that to each other?”

Criticism: “Well, you’re finally home…an hour late. You do your job. But, you can’t even show me the courtesy you would show one of your customers if you were running late. You’re selfish, self-centered, and never think of me.”

Don’t worry too much if this example of criticism strikes a familiar tone for you. A smattering of critical exchanges is common in marital relationships. But, criticism does leave your partner feeling rejected and hurt, which easily leads to a reciprocal negative response and the possibility of increased frequency of criticism between the two of you. And, if criticism becomes pervasive, it leads to other more toxic negative interaction patterns.

If you find that you and your spouse are starting to be more critical of each other, do the relationship work required to assess the source of your critical interactions and make the changes needed to reverse the negativity in your tone.

2. Contempt

Contempt is criticism on steroids. Contemptuous comments convey disgust and are truly mean. People who communicate with contempt treat their partner with disrespect and mock their partner with sarcasm, hostile joking, name-calling, or mimicking. These verbal insults are often accompanied by eye-rolling and sneering.

Contempt grows out of long-simmering negative thoughts about your partner, which often result from unresolved conflict.  What starts out as a simple complaint, sometimes repeatedly recurs and evolves into criticism. If the issue continues to surface and remain unresolved, partners get fed up. These feelings can fester and grow into generalized contempt – which shows up as an aggressive attack from a sense of superiority, with the purpose to demean the accused person.

Contempt: “Welcome home Hot Shot! You’re so important that you don’t have to follow the rules. You work late, hit happy hour after, and leave your family wondering if you’re dead or alive. What kind of example are you setting for our boys? You want them to think that this is how a “real man” treats his wife and family? I could use a “real man” around here.”

Contempt is the single greatest predictor of divorce. According to Gottman, it must be eliminated if a couple wants to avoid divorce.

3. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is a common response during conflict, particularly when people feel unjustly accused or when they want to provide an explanation or excuse for their behavior. Unfortunately, defensiveness rarely leads to conflict resolution because, rather than acknowledging that your spouse has a legitimate complaint, defensiveness devalues your spouse’s concern and shifts the blame to your spouse, as well.

Defensiveness: “You know I’m crazy busy. I didn’t text because you’re always on me not to text and drive. And, I didn’t call because I’d just get voice mail – you’re always “too busy” to answer my calls.”

This defensive response shifts the blame to the wife and will likely escalate, rather than defuse the conflict. On the other hand, a non-defensive response shows respect for the wife’s concerns and will likely quell the conflict.

Non-defensive Response: “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry. You are right. I should have texted as soon as I realized I was going to be late. I love that you worry about me, but you shouldn’t have to. I know this isn’t the first time and I promise I’ll do better.”

People often react defensively when they feel challenged or threatened. Keep in mind that
a soft complaint is more likely to produce a non-defensive response while harsh criticism is more likely to produce a defensive response and a negative spiral of more criticism and defensiveness.

If your spouse reacts defensively to what you meant as a complaint, your spouse probably heard the complaint as criticism. If this starts happening regularly in your relationship and you know there are outside pressures affecting one or both of you, just try to be patient and forgiving with one another. If there is no outside stressor affecting you or your spouse’s reactions to each other, then defensive reactions to a simple criticism could be a signal that the criticism is not as soft as you think or that there is an unresolved issue festering between the two of you. Try softening your criticism. If that doesn’t work, figure out what the issue is, and don’t let it fester too long.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling involves a lack of responsiveness designed to avoid repeated conflict and negative interactions. Rather than confront an issue or respond to their partner’s concerns, people who stonewall withdraw from interactions by tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or otherwise disengaging in the conflict.

Stonewalling rarely occurs in the early stages of a marriage. Instead, stonewalling emerges after criticism, contempt, and defensiveness become overwhelmingly negative enough to make stonewalling an understandable response. Once stonewalling emerges as a strategy to escape feeling flooded by negativity, it often becomes a self-protective habit that leads to emotional disengagement from the relationship.

Ironically, the more one spouse stonewalls in an effort to protect themselves against turbulent criticism and contempt, the more hostile the critical spouse becomes. When one spouse shuts down, the other becomes frustrated and tries even harder to be heard.

If they reach this stage, some couples start living lonely, parallel lives characterized by emotional indifference, peppered with occasional bouts of toxic negativity. Others experience a fiery meltdown and then divorce.  Hard to say which is more painful.

So, is it too late to save your marriage?

Think about the recent times you and your spouse had a disagreement. Did any of the Four Horsemen show their ugly heads?

Recognizing criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling is the first step toward eliminating them. But, to remove these negative communication patterns from your marriage you must learn and adopt new, productive communication patterns to use instead.

To get started, share this post with your spouse and have a calm, non-judgmental conversation about the lethal effect that criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling will have on your marriage if left unchecked. As you can see from this explanation, it takes two to create toxic communication patterns. It’s not about blame. Accept your part of the responsibility so your spouse will be more likely to do the same. Make a meaningful effort to “work it out”.

And, let me know if I can help.

You’ll find me at Amity Mediation Workshop, where we are now authorized to use the Gottman Relationship Checkup as we conduct transformative psycho-educational Marriage Refresher Courses for couples who want to stay together and restore the warmth and friendship in their marriage.