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Five Behaviors that Undermine Your Marriage

There are healthy communication habits that build up a relationship and those that are unhealthy and can tear down a relationship. Research has shown that when couples utilize criticism, defensiveness, dishonesty, stonewalling, and contempt during difficult moments, they will turn toward each other less and grow distant, and the likelihood of divorce increases. Constant put-downs are a form of emotional abuse and can cause self-esteem problems with those on the receiving end and destroy relationships. This article will discuss these five toxic behaviors and their antidotes.


Negative criticism is very toxic to relationships and can feel like an attack. It has the effect of tearing down rather than building up, affecting self-esteem, and causing stress, anger, and resentment. When someone experiences an attack, the hurt causes an escalation of negative feelings and behaviors and may compel retaliation. A complaint focuses on the problem, while a criticism focuses on character trait flaws. Criticism uses the words "always" or "never" to describe something your partner does or doesn't do. Criticism is different from a complaint. Complaints are a normal and healthy aspect of a relationship and are a way to bring problems to light. A complaint focuses on the issue, and criticism sees the partner's character, personality, or looks at the problem.

 Antidote: Bring up the same topic gently, which is a better way to resolve it.

 A gentle startup sounds like this:

  • Expressing what you noticed.
  • Sharing your feelings.
  • Stating your need.

For example:

"When I come home from work and see dirty dishes piled in the sink (what you noticed), I feel tired and frustrated (sharing your feelings). I need to walk into a peaceful environment.”


Contempt is the most dangerous of all behaviors because it undermines all reconciling efforts. At a minimum, it is very mean and becomes emotional abuse. It is a significant indicator of divorce. Contempt is supercharged criticism because it takes on a position of superiority, and the interaction becomes uncaring, demeaning, and affectionless. When people have contempt, they can be cynical and express their discontent using shame and mean-spirited sarcasm to put someone down. Some examples of complaint vs. criticism vs. contempt are:

  • Complaint: It is frustrating to walk into a sink full of dishes when I'm tired after working all day."
  • Criticism: You always leave the dishes in the sink because you don't care.
  • Contempt: I don't know why I would expect you to clean up the dishes; you're lazy, just like your family.

Antidote: Regularly express appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect in your relationship.


Defensiveness occurs when someone regularly receives criticism and contempt to try and protect themselves. A defensive person is uncomfortable admitting mistakes and shortcomings and may become rigid about their stand. They may turn around to become critical and contemptuous of their partner (give back as they get), or they may try to make excuses for their mistakes to downplay them. The argument is then deflected by changing the topic to the partner's shortcomings and becomes a cycle of never addressed accusations.

Antidote: Take responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict, and try to reach a solution.


Being lied to repeatedly is a red flag that can make it difficult to trust and build a solid foundation in a relationship. Honesty regarding spending, internet or other relationships, and substance use can create cracks in a marriage. Fostering secrecy regarding these issues can create secret lives that keep our partners out.

Lack of emotional honesty involves withholding, denying, or lying about how we feel about our partner, marriage, or ourselves. It is best to be upfront and honest with our partners rather than cover up how we feel.

Antidote: The antidote is to be honest with ourselves and others.

Withdrawal or Stonewalling

Stonewalling is when someone in the conversation shuts down, goes silent, blocks, and refuses to acknowledge the other person. With stonewalling, it seems like their partner doesn't care about them. The person who uses stonewalling is likely in a state of fight or flight. Stress hormones are then released when the body detects a threat. In conflict, sometimes our bodies will see it as any other threat and release stress hormones, and we will experience a racing heart. The parts of our brain responsible for relational behaviors like problem-solving, humor, and affection shut down.

Antidote: It is impossible to have a productive conversation when someone is in a stress response, so both people in the exchange need to agree to take a break and self-soothe.

  • Use deep breathing.
  • Take a walk or exercise.
  • Relaxing activities, such as reading, painting, etc.

Stress hormones will take about twenty minutes to clear out of the bloodstream, and after taking a break, return to the conversation when calm. This return builds trust within the relationship.

Most people will use these negative behaviors at times in relationships. It is crucial to recognize their use and make repairs quickly to work toward utilizing them less and less. If these behaviors become chronic, they can break down a marriage. If you need helpful advice and solutions on how to deal with them, consider Marriage in a Box.

Marriage In a Box is a great resource that gives you access to the simple tools, techniques, and solutions that professional marriage counselors use for typical relationship issues. Marriage coaching is also available on the site. You can set goals and earn rewards. Feel free to check out the available kit and sources of information.

Posted 1/11/2023

Do You Criticize Or Compliment Your Spouse?

Compliment Your Spouse

It is not unusual for a partner to lash out by criticizing their spouse sometimes after a tough day. It is healthy to realize that something hurtful was said and apologize quickly. You may feel stung as a partner on the receiving end of the critical words, but hopefully, you can empathize with a hard day and accept a heartfelt apology. If criticism shows up occasionally like this in a relationship, it is not a cause for concern unless criticism escalates to becoming a habit where consequences can be devastating.

To compliment is an expression of esteem, respect, affection, or admiration.

To criticize is to find fault with or point out one's flaws.

The Difference between criticism and constructive feedback

For a relationship to function well, feedback must be given and accepted. There is a line between constructive feedback and criticism. Healthy feedback is about behavior and not a person. We can let our partner know what we think or feel without criticizing them individually. An example would be, "I'm worried about eating too much fat in our diet. Can we talk about how we might eat healthier?

On the other hand, criticism lends itself to commenting on a partner's character or personality and is often extreme and non-specific. For example, "You're lazy and always cook with a lot of fat, like fried food and food drenched with butter, and never cook healthily. You don't even care if it kills us!". Criticism usually contains words like always and never as part of the accusation.

This type of delivery kills our message's value and makes the feedback pointless.

The Effects of Criticism on your Marriage

Our critical side can raise its ugly head during stress or frustration, making it a difficult habit to break. Understanding the effect criticism has on your partner and the shared bond may encourage you to reexamine your ways.


It breaks down your partner's self-esteem.

As anyone who receives criticism knows, these statements cut deeply. Repeated criticism can shake one's confidence and cause doubt about the ability to perform. If criticism comes from someone who is supposed to love us, we begin to believe that what they say must be valid. It raises questions about our value and worth.

It erodes trust.

Frequent criticism feels like betrayal and violates the implied promise of protection from hurt made in the formation of the relationship.

How to break the cycle of constant criticism

  • Stop trying to change your spouse.

Trying to force your spouse to change can cause more harm than good. Couples changing and growing should happen naturally, not something you should push. Encouraging self-improvement is an admirable quality of a supportive partner.

  • Treat your partner with Respect.

Respect indicates that your feelings, happiness, and welfare are essential to your partner and promote trust, appreciation, empathy, and safety. A mission to change your spouse is disrespectful to them and your relationship. It can break down their self-esteem, hurt their feelings, and demean their sense of self.

  • Stop pushing your partner away.

Personal growth is fantastic. Everyone has things on which they could work. Changing behaviors and responses for your partner is sometimes a good thing. But if you constantly try to change your partner, you disrespect them and send a message that what they offer you isn't good enough, and distance is created.

  • Put yourself in your partner’s shoes

Realize that you wouldn't accept someone criticizing you. Think about how it would feel if your partner constantly told you that you need to change. Nobody likes to be picked apart and told what to do all the time. Demanding change from your spouse can leave them feeling unworthy and leave you emotionally exhausted and unsatisfied.

Tips to stop criticism.

The antidote to criticism is to use a soft, gentle manner to complain without blame.

Decide the kind of person and spouse you want to be and how you want that reflected in your marriage. If you are serious about removing criticism from your marriage, decide and commit to working on your part.

  • Discuss your feelings using "I" statements and expressing a positive need. Avoid using "you" statements and expressing negative judgment, which will make your partner feel attacked.
  • Focus on the positive aspects of your partner instead of the negative.
  • Do what it takes to stop finding fault, belittling, nit-picking, cutting down, or chastising your partner. It takes work to accept your partner, even their annoying traits, bad habits that aren't harmful, quirks, and idiosyncrasies.
  • Think about why you married your spouse and praise their good qualities.

Resign yourself to the fact that you will not change your partner. Observe any behavior changes in your partner. Without criticism in your marriage relationship, see if your partner is more interactive, lively, open, or spontaneous and seems more relaxed.

There are resources available from the Marriage in a Box website in the form of a toolbox, The Marriage in a Box toolbox and coaching can both help you and your partner change how you relate to each other. Marriage in a box tools and resources can provide tips to communicate effectively. Feel free to check out the available kit, resources, and counselors online at ttps://

Research shows that you will be on the road to change if you apply new behaviors for thirty consecutive days. Everyone deserves to live in a criticism-free environment.

Posted 11/16/2022

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