Research by Dr John Gottman and others has helped us to understand the specific behaviours which are particularly damaging for marriages.

He is able to predict with 91% accuracy whether a couple will divorce, by the way they argue. You’ll want to avoid these Seven Deadly Habits that characterise marriages headed for bust.

The Seven Deadly Habits

1. Harsh Start-up.

This is when the argument opens with an attack. It immediately puts the other on the defensive.

Soft Start-up: “I’m worried about our relationship and I’d like to talk about it with you.”

Harsh Start-up: “We need to talk about how you aren’t pulling your weight in this relationship.”

2. Criticism.

Criticism is different to a complaint. Complaints relate to a person’s actions, whereas a criticism involves a judgement about the other’s motives.

Complaint: “I thought we had an agreement to check with each other before we commit to any engagements. I feel controlled when you don’t do that.”

Criticism: “Why didn’t you check with me BEFORE you committed us to that engagement? You don’t care about what I want to do.”

3. Contempt.

Contempt is a more cynical extension of criticism, and often involves character assassination.

Contempt: “You’re so manipulative and controlling. It’s a miracle you have any friends.”

4. Globalisation.

Another common habit is to globalise the complaint beyond the specific incident. Whenever the words “always”, “never” or “everything” are used, it’s a sure sign of globalisation. Stick to the incident at hand and avoid bringing up ancient history.

Globalisation: “You always do this! I never get consulted. You’ve been doing this from the day we married. It’s always the same with you.”

5. Defensiveness.

While it’s understandable that a person would get defensive when they are being criticised or blamed, it is not a helpful reaction. The more defensive one is, the more persistent the accuser tends to become, which escalates the argument.

6. Stonewalling.

Stonewalling is refusing to interact. It may involve physically leaving the other (e.g. storming out, locking oneself in another room) or emotionally tuning out (e.g. watching TV, reading the paper). In 85% of marriages, the stonewaller is the husband. One reason for this trend is that a man’s body is more easily ‘flooded’.

Flooding is a stress reaction and includes physiological changes such as an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. Flooding can be triggered by confrontation or emotional discussions and causes intense emotion which is overwhelming and disorientating. This is one reason why women are more likely than their husbands to bring up sensitive issues.

7. Rejecting repair attempts.

Within any argument, often one or both will make some gesture of conciliation. It might be through humour, touch, eye contact or words. When this happens, if the other person doesn’t recognise and/or respond, the person waving the white flag feels rejected, adding fuel to an already out-of-control blaze.

Rekindle the fire in your marriage

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Thinking about your last argument, how many of the Seven Deadly Habits did you use?
  2. How many did your spouse use?
  3. What was your reaction to your spouse’s use of a Deadly Habit?
  4. Identify one Deadly Habit that you will make a conscious decision to avoid next time.

More in this Series

Myths about Arguments : here
Anatomy of an Argument : here
Seven Deadly Habits : here – this post
Autopsy of an Argument : here
Reconciliation : here
Getting Help –> Counsellors : here