Toxic Talk: Four Behaviors to Avoid

No married couple enters into the bonds of matrimony with the intention of the relationship ending in divorce.  Instead, couples enter marriage with the intention of being a forever couple.  Unfortunately, this plan doesn’t work out for a significant number of couples.  There is little you can do about your spouse’s choices.  Common behaviors that may lead to divorce include adultery, chemical dependency, and vastly differing views on money.  However, there are choices you can make, individually, and as a couple, to avoid certain behaviors experts say are predictors of divorce.  These include:

  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Contempt and
  • Stonewalling

Objectively, people can agree that any one of these four behaviors leads to breaking down a relationship, rather than building it up.  However, when two or more of these behaviors occurs in combination, the results on a marriage can be relationship ending.

Toxic Talk: Criticism

Criticizing your partner does not advance your relationship.  However, you must understand there is a difference between expressing a concern and being critical.  When you express a concern, you focus on the behavior.  A criticism, on the other hand, focuses on the person.  For example, consider a situation where one person finds themselves doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen most of the time.  Expressing a concern might look like this:

“I notice that I am the one who does the dishes most nights.  I’d really appreciate it if you could take the initiative to do the dishes more often.”

This can lead to a discussion about household chores.  Maybe the non-dish doing partner loathes doing dishes but doesn’t mind taking out the trash or vacuuming the living room.  Together, the couple can work to find a solution suitable for both of them.

Criticism, on the other hand, attacks the person, not the problem.  Using the same hypothetical, a criticism may look like this:

“I always do the dishes while you just sit there watching tv.  You are so lazy and selfish.  You never think about me.”

This type of statement is unlikely to lead to a thoughtful discussion about how the couple can find a satisfactory resolution to the problem.  Moreover, constant criticism can lead to the next behavior that is a divorce predictor – contempt.

Toxic Talk: Defensiveness

Defensiveness is the logical response to criticism.  When someone feels attacked or unfairly accused, they often provide excuses in defense of their behavior.  Unfortunately, the criticizer often interprets a defensive response as an indication their expressed criticism isn’t being taken seriously.  It is further heard as an inability to take responsibility for failures.

An example of criticism from one spouse, followed by defensiveness may look like this:

“How many times do I have to tell you to call the damn vet?  I am sick and tired of cleaning up our cat’s barf day after day.  You keep saying you’ll do it, but you never do.  I can’t rely on you for anything!”

“I have to work, too you know!  It got really busy at the office.  I don’t know why you can’t call the vet yourself.”

Deflecting and shifting blame do not contribute to productive discussions.  Even if one partner begins the conversation by criticizing, the other partner does not have to respond defensively.  Instead, they may take a different approach, such as:

“You’re right.  I did say I’d call the vet.  Work got busy and it completely slipped my mind.  I’ll put it in my calendar right now so I don’t forget tomorrow.”

Defensiveness adds to conflict, while another response can help diffuse the situation.

Toxic Talk: Contempt

Contempt is another form of destructive communication.  Expressing contempt not only attacks the other person, it is used to place the speaker in a position of moral superiority.  Experts identify contempt as the single greatest predictor of divorce.  It can be expressed in any of the following ways:

  • Disrespectful communication
  • Mocking
  • Sarcasm
  • Ridicule
  • Name calling
  • Mimicking
  • Scoffing as well as
  • Eye rolling.

Here’s an example of how contempt may be expressed:

“What do you mean you didn’t bother to look for a job again today!  Are you so flipping precious you are too good to work in a book store?  I’m busting my back trying to keep this family above water and all you do is sit around and play video games and day drink.  You’re pathetic!”

Like criticism, contempt does not foster a loving and constructive conversation, where the couple works together to solve an issue.  Interestingly, studies show couples that practice contempt for each other get ill more often due to weakened immune systems.

Toxic Talk: Stonewalling

Stonewalling is often the natural response to contempt.  When someone is subject to contempt, they may simply shut down and stop interacting with the person expressing contempt.  They may choose to leave the room, ignore the speaker, turn away from the conversation, or engage in other behaviors to avoid the contempt.  If a person recognizes they are stonewalling, they can break the pattern by saying, “I’m too upset right now to continue this discussion.  Can we table it for today and revisit it tomorrow?”  This may also help the person expressing contempt calm down, so that a rational discussion can commence.

Are You Headed for Divorce?

Perhaps you recognize yourself or your partner in one or more of these described behaviors.  Perhaps you have been living this way for a long, long time.  No one can decide when or whether you should end your marriage or work to get it back on track.  If you decide you are ready for a divorce, or a trial separation, contact the attorneys at Fait & DiLima.  We work with our clients to help calm the storm, so they can return to their lives focusing on what is important to them.  We offer a full range of marriage and family law services, from separation agreements to mediation to collaborative law to divorce negotiation and litigation.  Call us today to schedule a consultation at (301) 251-0100.



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