The 'relationship killers' :: Catholic News Agency (CNA)

The 'relationship killers'

Laraine Bennett

Want to improve your relationship with that special someone?

Worried that you might inadvertently sabotage your next relationship?

Then take note of these three serious blunders that wreak havoc with relationships and are proven marriage busters.

Michele thought that their marriage was trouble-free: they had survived the midnight feedings, hormonal mood swings, and lifestyle adjustments of a new baby; Grant pitched in with diaper changing and voiced no complaint about taking on more household chores. Moreover, Michele and Grant never argued.

Then Grant left her for another woman.

But what seemed completely unexpected and bizarre to Michele could have been predicted by psychologists at the Gottman Relationship Research Institute.

Psychologist John Gottman and his team of researchers at the University of Washington predict with more than 90% accuracy whether a marriage will succeed or fail after observing a couple’s interactions. Gottman and his colleagues found that there were certain key behaviors that were indicative of unhappy marriages. Here are three of the top offenders:

1. Avoid conflict at all costs. Yes, you read that correctly.

It’s a myth that happy couples never argue. In fact, conflict avoidance is one of the predictors of divorce, researchers found. Some people, whether by temperament or upbringing, fear interpersonal conflict. They would rather give in or say nothing than engage in a heated discussion, especially with a loved one. However, avoiding all conflict leads to squelching feelings, which leads to emotional distance. And it’s hard to feel intimate when you are emotionally distant.

Conflict-avoiding couples often have a high rate of extramarital affairs—and this can occur even with practicing Catholics. When one of the spouses fails to express their true feelings, they can begin to feel lonely, and may fall prey to temptation.

This is what happened with Michele and Grant. Michele hadn’t realized that Grant’s tendency to avoid all conflict, swallowing his feelings of confusion and loneliness after the birth of their baby, led him to detach emotionally from Michele and, ultimately, to seek emotional fulfillment in a co-worker who offered attention and support.

Then why do couples who fight all the time often end up breaking up or even getting a divorce? This is often due to the WAY they fight or their lack of resolution. My own parents (happily married more than sixty years) often engage in verbal sparring. But their arguments never escalate nor do they become gridlocked in their differing positions. The disagreement usually ends when my dad makes a joke and my mom bursts into hearty laughter. The argument is diffused and never reaches the ugly stage of name-calling, criticism, or contempt.

Physical and verbal abuse is always wrong. But even the best relationships will always involve conflict, reminding us that we need to learn how to resolve our disputes responsibly and lovingly. This leads to our second big no-no:

2.Roll your eyes. Indeed, that seemingly innocuous and commonplace gesture conveys a seriously poisonous level of contempt. And contempt is a relationship killer.

All couples (even the happily married ones) will sometimes fight and utter angry words they later regret. It is not so much the occasional fight or expression of anger that can cause trouble in a relationship. Dr. Gottman’s research shows that it is, rather, a pattern of constant criticism and contempt, stonewalling and withdrawal, that leads to unhappiness in a marriage. All of these attitudes harm marriages and relationships, but contempt is the most poisonous of all.

When spouses were treated with contempt, they felt that their marital problems were so severe they could not be resolved, and they often became ill over the next few years. Simple anger did not have the same result. Contempt shows no empathy. Contempt makes loving, respectful, and affectionate communication nearly impossible.

As it turns out, Grant felt as though Michele was always criticizing him—even contemptuously. He withdrew in sullen silence when she rolled her eyes at his awkward attempts to help out with the baby or criticized him for working late. In fact, her melancholic temperament (which tends to look at the glass as half empty) and her sarcastic sense of humor contributed to a somewhat negative tone in the marriage. Gottman discovered that the happiest couples make five positive comments or gestures to every one criticism. Without an abundance of positive communication, Grant was left with his “love tank” running on empty.

3. Forget the past. Not the bad stuff; it’s OK to forget that.

Happy couples remember and reflect on the good times, the romantic moments of the past, even their fond memories of overcoming obstacles. Keeping in mind the bigger picture (her kindness, his strong work ethic) helps couples forgive the smaller annoyances (his tendency to squeeze the toothpaste from the middle, her inability to read a map). Dr. Gottman and his team of researchers at the University of Washington found that happy couples were on the lookout for ways to praise each other, and readily shared fond memories. During tough times, they would reflect on the fond memories, reigniting the feelings of love and affection.

The antidote to these relationship killers is respect, affection, and empathy. As Christ told us: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). Trouble is the norm. How we handle the troubles of life is key. With God’s grace, we will have the strength we need to resolve our relationship conflicts with love, respect, and empathy. Above all, our faith gives us hope: life’s troubles are passing and Christ’s joy and peace are always at hand.

This article originally appeared on, which is a part of the 4marks Network. 4marks offers a variety of online services to Catholics, including our Temperament Test, single Catholic service and Trivia. To learn more about any of our services or how 4marks is helping Catholics connect online in order to deepen their faith offline, visit

Topics: Forgiveness , Marriage , Relationships

Laraine Bennett co-authored, with her husband Art, The Temperament God Gave Your Spouse and The Temperament God Gave You, published by Sophia Institute Press. Their new book, The Emotions God Gave You, is due Spring 2011. Please visit their website at

View all articles by Laraine Bennett

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