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Common Marriage Problems Avoiding common marriage problems in your conflicts

By eHarmony Marriage Published 06/12/2007 | Marriage

Common marriage problems that most couples face often have to do with how a husband and wife manage their conflict.  If you and your spouse can learn to argue in a way that avoids certain "deadly toxins" that can poison your communication, you can avoid some of the most common marriage problems. 

Common marriage problems, according to the research of marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, appear in the way you two communicate with each other.  He names four disastrous ways of interacting that will sabotage your attempts to resolve marriage problems constructively. In order of least to most dangerous, the common marriage problems are (1) criticism, (2) contempt, (3) defensiveness, and (4) stonewalling.


Common Marriage Problem #1: Criticism

Common marriage problem #1, criticism, involves attacking someones personality rather than their behavior. Everyone has the right to complain.  Airing a complaint, though rarely pleasant, is a healthy marital activity, and much healthier than suppressing the grievance.  Criticism, on the other hand, entails blaming, making a personal attack or an accusation. Whereas complaints usually begin with the word I, criticisms begin with you. For example, I wish we went out more than we do is a complaint. You never take me anywhere is a criticism. Criticism is just a short hop beyond complaining.  It may seem like splitting hairs to label it one of the four main common marriage problems, but receiving a criticism really does feel far worse than receiving a complaint. 


Common Marriage Problem #2: Contempt

Common marriage problem #2, contempt, leads directly from the first.  And it is such a big problem for a marriage because it poisons a relationship whether a couple has been together four months or forty years. What separates contempt from criticism, according to Gottman, is the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner.  When contempt appears, it overwhelms the marriage and blots out positive feelings between partners. Some of the most common expressions of contempt are name-calling, hostile humor, and mockery. These are all examples of the second common marriage problem, and once they've entered a home, the marriage goes from bad to worse.


Common Marriage Problem #3: Defensiveness

Common marriage problem #3, defensiveness, enters the picture once contempt is present. Both spouses may feel victimized by the other, so that neither is willing to take responsibility for setting things right.  One of the reasons defensiveness is so destructive is that it becomes a reflex. The victim, reacting instinctively, doesnt see anything wrong with being defensive.  But this common marriage problem tends to escalate marriage problems rather than resolving them. Every time either spouse feels completely righteous in their stance, every time they make excuses and deny responsibility, they add to their marital problems.


Common Marriage Problem #4: Stonewalling

Common marriage problem #4, stonewalling, appears when you're nearing rock bottom.  This is when you simply stop responding, even defensively, to your mate's accusations.  Most stonewallers (about 85%) are men. Feeling overwhelmed by emotions and the problems the marriage is facing, they start withdrawing by presenting a stone wall response. They try to keep their faces immobile, avoid eye contact, and avoid nodding their heads to indicate they are listening. Stonewalling itself is a very powerful act. It conveys disapproval, icy distance, and smugness.

This fourth common marriage problem need not mark the end of a marriage, but once routine interactions have deteriorated to this extent, the marriage is very fragile and will require a good deal of work to save.  Keep in mind that anyone may stonewall or become defensive, contemptuous, or critical. Even with very happy couples these behaviors occasionally appear during an intense marital conflict. The real danger here is letting these common marriage problems become habitual ways of interacting.

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