Four Habits That Destroy Marriages
by Chris Lewis, EdS, LPC

Marriages do not suddenly end when the divorce is final. If a marriage reaches the point of divorce, a “post-mortem” relationship will often reveal the presence of habits practiced by one or both partners that slowly and insidiously robbed the marriage of its strength, vitality, and ultimately, its life.

Just as we can help to protect our bodies from illness and disease by ensuring that we do not engage in destructive habits, we can protect our marriages from failure by avoiding these very destructive relationship patterns. If any one of these traits is in play in a relationship, the result can progressively weaken a marital bond to the point of collapse. Knowing what these patterns are, and guarding against them, can be the key to maintaining a strong, healthy marriage.

1. Lack of Honesty

Often when we think of honesty, notably honesty in marital relationships, we think of a very tangible “where were you last night” kind of honesty. While this is obviously critically important, there are many other kinds of dishonesty that can destroy marriages.

Honesty regarding things such as spending habits, internet relationships, and substance use or addiction can create cracks in a marriage that quickly become chasms. Fostering secrecy regarding these issues can lead to creating secret lives that not only keep our partners out, but can involve ever more consuming relationships with other people (or substances or behaviors such as gambling) that then can become primary in our lives. Our partners soon cannot compete with the pull and attraction to these secret lives and marriages fail. Affairs often begin this way.

Affairs also often begin as a result of a failure in our most basic and difficult form of honesty; emotional honesty. Emotional dishonesty involves withholding, denying, or simply lying about how we feel in regard to our partner, our marriage, or ourselves. Saying “I’m fine” when we are not may seem like an innocent response to an inquiry about our day or how we are feeling, but if it is not true, then it is dishonest.

If we are feeling angry, frustrated, neglected, or even fearful in relation to our partner, and we do not address these feelings openly and honestly, we cannot reach resolution. Without resolution, these feelings will no doubt fester and grow. Being fully and completely honest about how we are feeling will allow awareness and understanding to grow in a marriage, and this in turn deepens our commitment.

2. Lack of Intimacy

It has often been said of a failed marriage that “we simply became like roommates.” This happens when the bonds of intimacy have been neglected. Intimacy is the glue that holds our relationships together. It is what makes our relationships with each other unique and impervious to interference from external sources. Intimacy is expressed in our marriages on two levels, sexual and emotional, and both are critically important to nurturing intimacy.

After the early years of marriage, when realities of raising families, building careers, and even later on caring for aging parents invade our lives, it is not easy to create either space or time, or to have the energy for an active sex life. Neglecting our partners’ sexual needs, and our own, can move us very swiftly into “roommate” mode. In order to keep sexual intimacy alive, it must be nurtured.

It is also critical to nurture emotional intimacy in a relationship. Emotional intimacy involves a deeper knowledge of our partners, not just in terms of historical knowledge, but by being curious and paying attention to them every day. Maintaining curiosity about our partners will keep us focused on their emotional lives and needs. Couples are already in trouble when they say “Oh, I know what he will say/do/feel, etc.” We stop trying to know someone when we believe we already do.

3. Devaluing Our Spouse/Relationship

When we value something, we treat it with care and respect. We tend to it as we would a great treasure. We cherish our time and behave in ways that ensure we will always have access to what we treasure. Unfortunately for many marriages, the evidence of valuing one another and the relationship is not there.

Instead, in many marriages, certainly often in those that fail, there is an abundance of criticism, negativity, neglect, and carelessness. It is difficult to want to be around someone who is constantly negative, and if that negativity is directed toward us in the form of criticism, the effect over time is degrading and deadly to a marriage.

What we feed and nourish will grow. What we neglect and mistreat will starve. These are simple principles that apply as much to our marriages as they do to our houseplants. If you love someone, demonstrate that love in action and in words. If you neglect to do so, you are demonstrating your lack of interest.

4. Using Power and Control

This is by far the most destructive force any human can bring to a marital relationship, and obviously includes the use of physical and sexual abuse or violence. What is often not understood, however, is that domestic violence can also involve the use of verbal and emotional abuse, even if there is no physical contact. 

Using power and control to exert oneself and one’s will over another human is never acceptable. In abusive marriages where there has never been physical violence, there can be a pattern of one partner using anger, intimidation, criticism, and threatening words or behavior to control the other partner. This includes belittling, demeaning, and ridiculing one’s partner.

Verbally and emotionally abusive partners will often twist and manipulate their spouse’s words and consistently blame their spouse for their bad behavior. Abusive people are seldom capable of taking responsibility for their own behavior, and as a result, seldom make long term and meaningful change.

Partners of verbally or emotionally abusive people often feel at fault for everything, confused, and afraid to speak up or to leave the relationship. If these characteristics are present in a relationship, it is critical for the abused partner to reach out for help as quickly as possible.

While couples counseling can be helpful for many couples, in marriages that involve any form of abuse, marriage counseling is not initially indicated and can even cause more harm than good. Individual therapy can enable and empower spouses of abusers to get and stay safe and to begin to reclaim their lives.

While there are many reasons that marriages fail, the presence of these characteristics, lack of intimacy and honestly, devaluing our relationships, and using power and control, are often destructive to our marriages. Being aware of and guarding against these traits can enable our marriages to grow deeper and stronger and help to fail-proof our most valuable relationships.