Your seemingly innocent daily habits—like scrolling through your phone in bed—could be destroying your marriage. “Research shows that there are a lot of little things people do that can indicate serious problems in relationships,” says Carrie Cole, a couples therapist and certified Gottman master trainer at the Center for Relationship Wellness in Houston.
The good news? Even if you’re having problems now, it doesn’t mean you’re headed for divorce. A recent survey found that couples are more likely to try to work things out—and break the bad habits they’ve developed—than they were even 10 years ago. We’re all for keeping you out of the lawyer’s office, so watch out for these bad habits that couples therapists say always end in a split.
Talking trash behind each other’s backs
Speaking in a mean-spirited way about your partner when she’s not around is a red flag that, surprisingly, is pretty common, says Cole. And it could have a lot to do with your friends. Cole says it is easy to fall into this habit if you’re surrounded by people doing the same thing. With your group of friends constantly talking smack about their own wives, it might feel normal for you to chime in as well.
But in reality, it shows a lack of respect for your partner and your relationship, even if she never finds out, and starts a pattern of negative comparisons that can lead to even more criticism and contempt. Before you know it, your relationship is in a fast, downward spiral.
Fixating on what your wife doesn’t do well
Negatively comparing your spouse to others is another subtle kiss of death. “Even if you’re only making notes in your mind, it can kill a relationship over time,” says Cole. Try to remember that the grass always seems greener because one person is never going to have everything on your wish list, and if there’s a habit she’s developed that you’d like to tweak, there’s nothing wrong with that—so long as you’re not ultimately trying to change who she is. Cole says to use a gentle approach, and at the end of the day, you might as well focus on the good. Your marriage—and sanity—will be better for it.
Never putting yourself in your partner’s shoes
We’re not into gender stereotyping, but experts widely agree that men tend to have more difficulty with a skill called “accepting influence,” which means having an ability to understand your significant other’s perspective, even if you don’t agree with it. Experts think that guys struggle more to develop this skill because ladies tend to be more empathetic, thanks to the biological and neurological differences between the two genders. But just because it’s harder to do doesn’t mean it should be ignored.
In fact, “marriages in which men don’t accept influence from their wives are at a much higher risk for divorce,” says Diane Gehart, professor of marriage and family therapy at California State University, Northridge. Research from the Gottman Institute even found that when men don’t do this, their marriage has an 81 percent chance of failing.
(Yikes.) But just because men are usually the ones to struggle in this department doesn’t mean the ladies get off scot-free. Men inherently want to feel understood too (it ties into their need to feel respected by their partner), so both parties should try to walk in the others’ shoes when working on a problem.
Starting fights with your (figurative) fists up
When your conversation with your wife suddenly goes from an emotional zero to sixty, that’s not a good sign. Doing so drives your partner away, explains Gehart, because it immediately shuts down the possibility of having a productive conversation. And women are the usual culprits.
“Women are more likely to raise issues aggressively than men are,” she says, and a study found that it’s likely because men are usually able to quickly “calm down” and analyze a situation sans emotions, whereas women are more likely to go by how they feel.
Not knowing when to press pause on a fight
Once an argument gets going, it can be hard to stop it from spiraling out of control. But disengaging makes it easier to resolve problems, because you can then talk more calmly and compassionately, says Cole. If you don’t, you’re more likely to find yourselves yelling, crying, or freezing each other out—and that can have a literal effect on your body.
“When people shut down during conflict, it’s usually because their heart rates have skyrocketed to over 100 beats per minute, which throws you into fight or flight response. When that happens, you lose access to the part of your brain—the frontal lobe—that gives you communication skills. So sometimes you literally can’t speak coherently, even when you try,” she says.
So no, it’s not a cop-out to take a break from talking mid-fight and resuming the conversation later. It can actually make the difference between a productive, solution-oriented talk, and one that sends you deeper down the rabbit hole. If it becomes a habit, that tunnel might lead to divorce.
Always putting on a good face.
Even when you’re trying to appear calm, your body often betrays your true feelings. A few subtle cues that tip experts off to problems: A higher-pitched voice, dilated pupils, and a slightly paled complexion—and they all usually come with that classic, fake smile and rigid movements.
“These are all signs that someone is overwhelmed with their own emotions and shifting into a flight or fight mode, so they simply can’t tune into their partner in a way that shapes a safe dialogue,” says couples therapist Sue Johnson, who authors of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.
When you regularly fall into this, rather than just telling the truth about your misgivings, then you create a pattern of refusing to be emotionally honest, Johnson explains. That automatically shuts off the possibility for her to understand, support, and potentially correct the problem with you—and instead tips the relationship into even more distress and distance that could ultimately derail a marriage.
Not fighting at all.
When crickets replace conversation—and yes, bickering, because no two people will agree on everything all the time—experts say your relationship could be dying a slow death. Because when you don’t even bother to bring up something that bugs you, it means you’ve stopped putting energy into the relationship and could be emotionally checking out, says Gehart.
Now, that doesn’t mean you should be picking fights in order to show you care, but if there’s a sense of quiet resentment or ambivalence, it’s better to bring up the issue than let it simmer. Because eventually, Gehart says it always boils over, and so will your marriage.
Waiting too long to deal with your issues.
It’s extremely common to put off having tough conversations, according to the Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College. But not facing your problems soon enough can put you in a situation that can’t be fixed.
“By the time many couples make their first therapy appointment—an unpublished study reported that the average couple waits six years from the onset of problems to seek help—the toxic dynamics have been in place for so long that it’s harder to undo the damage,” says Cole.
That doesn’t mean the marriage is over, though. Just remember that the longer you wait, the more time and work it will take to get things back on track, and you both need to be willing to put in that effort in order for your marriage to succeed.