7 Behaviors That Are Killing Your Marriage

Couple sits apart on bench under tree on cold dayWhen warm and sweet feelings turn cold and sour, when the paradise transforms into a living hell, and when the feeling of love has faded away, you know your relationship has become toxic and dysfunctional. With high divorce rates, more and more people are questioning the institution of marriage. Factors such as infidelity, midlife crises, and financial differences can test even the strongest unions, but how you communicate with your partner can be just as important.

If you feel like your marriage is deteriorating, it is time for some reflection. What attitudes and behaviors are detrimental to the marriage? Below, I will discuss seven damaging behaviors that can dramatically impact your relationship.

1. Negative Criticism

Imagine all your efforts, even constructive suggestions, being met with disapproval and objection by your significant other. Doesn’t feel great, right? Instead of addressing the problems you have with their particular behavior and how it impacts you, you question their personality and values. No one likes being attacked, especially when it comes to their character. Excessive or negative criticism can take a toll on self-esteem and may cause stress, anger, and resentment. When you feel attacked, the hurt may compel you to retaliate toward the complainer or blamer, causing escalation of negative feelings and behaviors.

2. Silent Treatment, Withdrawal, and Distancing

The silent treatment, withdrawal, distancing, and other examples of lack of cooperation are detrimental to marriages. Aren’t we all guilty of this to some degree? At times, instead of communicating the problem with a partner, we shut them out and refuse to collaborate. We decline to express our needs and prevent our partner from expressing themselves or accessing our internal world. This stonewalling can lead to the building of resentment and other negative feelings in the other person. Physical or emotional detachment acts as a hurdle in communication and hurts the well-being of the relationship.

3. Contempt

In his comprehensive research about couples, Dr. John Gottman found out that contempt is the No. 1 predictor of divorce. Contempt is poison for marriages. Behaviors such as disrespecting, cursing, name-calling, and anything else that makes the other person feel bad about themselves reflect contemptuous intentions. Contempt from the person with whom you are supposed to feel secure and protected could put the future of your marriage in doubt.

4. Nagging

The Wall Street Journal defined nagging as “the interaction in which one person repeatedly makes a request, the other person repeatedly ignores it and both become increasingly annoyed.” Nagging is a behavior that contaminates a marriage and, over time, has the potential to end it. No one wants to feel like an errant, irresponsible child. Nagging creates distance between a couple and promotes lack of trust and negative energy. When you know it is creating problems rather than solving them, you need to try a different strategy.

5. Defensiveness

Criticism leads to defensiveness, and defensiveness leads to withdrawal. Criticism creates a defensive, self-protective response. It is an intimacy killer that acts as a hindrance in the bond formation. Defensive behavior adds a layer to the already existing problems because no positive result comes out of it. As a shield, many people tend to bring up the past or deflect attention toward something the criticizing partner has done rather than focus on the present challenge. It leads to an “I am right, you are wrong” dynamic and starts a power play.

6. Refusing to Resolve Issues

When couples shut each other out, rather than maturely communicating and resolving the conflict, issues tend to pile up. These tend to burst out during fights as excuses, and further damage the relationship. A lot of couples pretend that everything is okay in order to avoid confrontation. Although it might create peace between the two for the time being, the issue will come up again and again as long as it remains unsettled.

7. Holding to Unrealistic Expectations

When one partner expects too much from the other, the other may feel like a failure when things do not go right (i.e., “Nothing I do is good enough”). This causes unhappiness and frustration. Yes, it’s important to be expressive and to ask in a gentle way for your needs to be met. Yet even when you ask respectfully, it does not mean you will get what you want. Once you ask for something, it is in the court of your partner. When you are assertive and accepting of your partner and the reality of your relationship, while embracing influence rather than control, you are in a better position to get what you want—but more importantly you may be happier, both individually and as a couple.

Having differences and arguments is normal. How you handle these situations makes all the difference. Self-examination and personal responsibility are necessary to secure the marriage and grow emotionally strong together. Avoid damaging behaviors, inject care and compassion, and create a loving marriage. If you need guidance from an impartial professional, contact a qualified therapist.


  1. Bernstein, E. (2012, January 25). Meet the marriage killer. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970203806504577180811554468728
  2. Navarra, R. J., & Gottman, J. M. (2011). Gottman method couple therapy: From theory to practice. In D.K. Carson and M. Casado-Kehoe (Eds.) Case studies in couples therapy: Theory-based approaches (331-343). New York, NY: Routledge. Retrieved from http://www.johngottman.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Navarra-Gottman-SRH-Theory-Relationship-Marriage-Education.pdf

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Mara

    September 29th, 2016 at 7:27 AM

    I don’t know why but I totally shut down and give him the silent treatment any time we fight. I think that I just want to avoid the whole arguing thing so badly because that is all I ever remember my mom and dad doing so I don’t want to exhibit that same behavior in front of our kids. I guess it would be smarter to just work it out right then and there but I don’t know, I have a hard time with that.

  • Kathy

    September 29th, 2016 at 1:57 PM

    I have my suspicions that my husband is turning to other women online when we get into an argument. I don’t think that he would ever admit to it but I feel a distance there that has not always been present but I dont know what to do or even say to bring it up with him.

  • Verne

    September 29th, 2016 at 5:34 PM

    I just want my wife to get off my back sometimes but the nagging is incessant!

  • Reesa

    September 30th, 2016 at 7:38 AM

    I still have a lot of contempt for my husband for things that he has done in the past. He has apologized and I have tried the whole forgiveness route but I can never stick with it. I know that I just make him feel even worse about it and it drives us further apart but I don’t know how else to deal with the things that he has done. He thinks that since he has said he is sorry that we don’t need counseling.

  • kinard

    September 30th, 2016 at 12:37 PM

    It could be very simplistic but I think that for us it became all about just being complacent, never wanting to go anywhere and never doing anything with each other much anymore. I think that we got out of the habit of doing that when the kids were young and we have never been able to get back to that point where we wanted to intentionally spend time with each other.

  • Jake

    October 3rd, 2016 at 9:22 AM

    MY assumption is that those who do not choose to work on or resolve their issues only do that so that they feel like they will always have something to throw back in their partner’s face when they want to use it against them again. Not too smart if you want to keep the relationship going!

  • Melinda

    October 4th, 2016 at 1:50 PM

    I wish that someone could clue me in as to how I get someone to do something without the nagging
    I know that I should be able to ask once and it gets done but if it doesn’t then what am I supposed to do?
    Just keep asking and hope he listens? Or just do it myself?

  • jameson

    October 5th, 2016 at 10:20 AM

    Those people who are constantly on the defensive, making excuses for what they do and defending their actions, never seeing anything wrong with what they say or do… this is a person who drives me nuts. We are all imperfect and the least we can do is to admit when we have made a mistake and are wrong. A person who can’t even do that is not a real stand up kinda person to begin with.

  • Theo

    October 7th, 2016 at 10:54 AM

    Seriously when we started sleeping apart things got so much better.
    I know snore and I know this sounds crazy but my wife had so much contempt for me in the mornings after we would sleep that it really was causing some big issues in our marriage.
    I switched rooms, and we don’t have those arguments anymore. And we probably both sleep a little better too.

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