Telltale Signs of Troubled Marriage

There is no consensus regarding the factors that produce a happy marriage. Indeed, there are many and diverse positive characteristics that couples have discovered to make their marriages meaningful, satisfying, and mutually fulfilling. While certain themes tend to emerge in studying happy marriages not all happy marriages have all of the same positive traits in common. There are many paths to marital bliss.  On the other hand, marriage researchers have known for decades that there are specific and solidly defined factors that are accurate predictors for marital failure. In fact, a doomed relationship can be predicted with over 90% accuracy when specific negative traits are present. Nearly all failed marriages can be attributed in some way to one or more of four well-documented characteristics.

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Belittlement – Perhaps the worst of the four marriage killers occurs when spouses disparage, devalue, speak contemptibly, or otherwise invalidate one another in some way. To state it simply, belittlement takes place when one sees their partner as inferior in some way. It is manifested through personal attacks on a spouse’s personality or character – whether spoken or inferred.

Belittlement can take many forms that range from subtle to overt. While caustic, hurtful remarks are a common feature of belittlement it can also be manifested through insinuated insensitivity and invalidation through implication.


Withdrawal – The pattern of withdrawing in a relationship can take many forms but it stems from a common cause. While it can stem from anger or a vengeful attitude, withdrawal generally originates when one’s emotional safety is perceived to be threatened.

Withdrawal often has a progressive presentation that varies depending on the degree of perceived emotional threat. In beginning stages it takes the form of emotional unavailability (i.e. “shutting down” emotionally). This often gives way to withdrawal from meaningful communication and, finally, physical avoidance.


Escalation – The phenomenon of escalation occurs when partners respond back and forth negatively to one another whether verbally or behaviorally. With each response the dispute widens becoming more and more negative and severe.

A classic presentation of escalation begins with a relatively trivial disagreement that grows into a major confrontation. For example, a disagreement gives way to a heated debate, which gives way to an angry argument, which gives way to animated behavior (e.g. screaming, slamming doors, storming out of the room), which gives way to threats to break up the relationship, which gives way to leaving the home, and so forth.

However, a situation must not always be flamboyant in order to escalate. Rolling eyes, the “silent treatment”, intentional emotional detachment, withholding intimacy, and other actions can serve as more subtle forms of manipulation and control through escalation.


Negative Perception – The least detectable and, therefore, most difficult to overcome of the four marriage killers is negative perception. While the first three factors are easy to observe, people generally have very poor insight with respect to their negative beliefs and interpretations.

To state it simply, negative perception is seeing wrong with one’s spouse even when it isn’t there. In other words, believing that the actions or motives of one’s partner are more negative than is really the case. Examples of negative perception include believing your spouse does not love you, is deliberately ignoring you, wants to hurt you emotionally, and so forth when there is little or no evidence to logically warrant such an interpretation.

Negative perception can originate from a variety of causes including a mistrusting family of origin, personal insecurities, low-self esteem, and many more variables. Because one lacks insight regarding this condition, perception feels like reality. Therefore one’s negative beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies. Negative interpretations can lead to a confirmation bias in which one sets out to find evidence to confirm negative beliefs.

Negative perception erodes marriages because individuals tend to become defensive when accused. A pattern of negative interpretations result in feelings of frustration and fatalism on both sides. On one hand, the unrealistic expectations of one spouse’s negative beliefs cannot be fulfilled to satisfaction. On the other hand, the accused spouse comes to feel that he/she can do nothing right which leads to resentment.

What are we to do? Married couples must avoid these four factors that destroy marriages at all costs. Only deliberate and sincere self-examination coupled with a commitment to eradicate these negative characteristics from our relationships are sufficient to ensure the maintenance of a healthy marriage. When marital troubles surface, we must realize that it is impossible to “fix” the problems by interjecting positive traits without first identifying and removing the factors that are harming the relationship. The harmful characteristics will only serve to overshadow and negate any positive actions that we endeavor. First get rid of the bad, then the path will be cleared to focus on the good.

Kirk VanOoteghem serves as Executive Pastor of River of Life in Muncie, Indiana.  He has many years of experience as a marriage counselor and educator and is the founder of MarriageMoment.org – an online ministry dedicated to protecting and strengthening marriages.

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