6 Destructive Styles of Marriage
Certain styles of marriage cause the most conflict and unhappiness for couples. Once a marriage gets to the point where both people feel miserably unhappy, it becomes crucial to figure out what is wrong with the relationship. This level of unhappiness signals it is time to either try to fix the problems or end the marriage.
Many of these destructive patterns result from common problems such as low self-esteem, incompatibility, poor communication skills, emotional problems or substance abuse. The ability to solve these problems determines whether a marriage can ever become healthy and happy. Identifying the pattern that your relationship falls into is a start to understanding the work that needs to happen.
If the patterns don’t involve mental illness or substance abuse, then poor communication skills, difficulty with stress management, low self-esteem or unresolved emotional issues from childhood could be the cause. Each of these problems can be solved if both partners take responsibility for their part in the conflicts in the relationship.
If a couple can identify the negative pattern their relationship is in, there is a chance to solve their problems. It is also important for people to realize and accept when a relationship is not going to work and to be able to end it.
#1 The Abusive Marriage
The most common forms of abuse fall into three categories: 1) verbal, 2) physical and 3) emotional. It might seem obvious to someone who is not in an abusive marriage that the solution would be to leave the relationship. However, many people who are victims of abuse, as well as those who perpetrate abuse, stay in the marriage because they freeze in fear and confusion.
Drama and clearly defined roles tend to solidify this kind of marriage. It may seem easier to stay in the marriage to avoid the shame of telling friends and family what has been going on. The fear of starting over again with someone new or of being alone is sometimes more daunting than putting up with the abuse.
In an abusive relationship, control is often the motivator. The abusive person aims to beat down and scare their partner in order to feel less insecure about being abandoned or outshined. Abusers can admit their faults and present as sympathetic figures who are sorry for their bad behavior. The victim of abuse can feel guilty and forgive the abuser. This marriage continues in a cycle of blame, drama, and enmeshment that binds the partners together in their shame and confusion.
Unresolved emotional issues and substance abuse are also causes of this pattern, and denial keeps change from occurring. The physical and mental health of both partners suffer. If both people don’t agree to get professional help to break the destructive cycle of their relationship, both partners are at risk for lifelong damage. These marriages need to end.
#2 The Cold Marriage
Picture a married couple in their home avoiding eye contact and responding to each other with indifference. Imagine this couple not asking each other about their day and showing little interest when they share information about their lives. People who live in such an atmosphere experience profound feelings of hurt, resentment, loneliness, and depression. Imagine no sexual contact and limited displays of affection over time.
Some relationships start out cold. The individuals are often shy or selfish. They may have grown up in a cold family, or they may never have had much heat between them from the beginning. Becoming cold can happen over time and begin to feel normal. It can feel quiet and peaceful to some who don’t care about connecting more intimately. But for the majority of people, living in a cold marriage is emotional torture.
The quiet can feel hostile. It can also feel lonely and confusing. Many ponder if their partner is angry at them. They also wonder if their coldness means that they are not in love with their partner anymore. Chronic emotional isolation and not getting needs met leads to depression, battered self-esteem and disdain for one’s partner.
Cold relationships struggle with a pattern of under-communicating, so issues never get fully explored, and emotions remain muted or undiscovered. If resentment is at the root of the coldness, the relationship is doomed unless someone opens up, expresses their feelings, and tries to resolve, understand, and forgive the issues driving the coldness. Living in this environment is emotionally damaging. A “cold marriage” should be ended, not indefinitely endured.
#3 The Competitive, Combative Marriage
A competitive relationship is the atmospheric opposite of a cold relationship. It is highly verbal, full of conflict, and dominated by a “win/lose” dynamic. If the relationship is not combative, competitiveness can add to the attraction and passion between partners. It can feel spirited and exciting and highlight admirable traits that appear ambitious and socially rewarding.
However, when a healthy competition turns into a dynamic in which partners need to win and control every aspect of the relationship, then the marriage becomes toxic. When partners diminish each other to deal with their insecurities, the marriage becomes a battleground, not a union based on friendship and mutual respect.
Healthy competitiveness sounds like, “I want to try this my way instead of your way. Let’s see how it goes.” Combative competitiveness sounds like, “I think my way is better; you never come up with ideas that make sense.” The first declares strong self-support for an idea and an openness to being either right or wrong. The second creates an “I am better than you” narrative and an implied decision that the other person’s opinion is not good enough to be considered. In the second scenario, the negative competitor sets up a dynamic in which their partner will have to fight back to defend their integrity or intelligence.
This marriage becomes a competition for control and power and a fight for personal autonomy and integrity. The environment in this kind of marriage is hostile, sad and ultimately erects emotional and physical walls that destroy emotional and physical intimacy.
Many people involved in this negative, competitive pattern will argue that they do not mean to put their partner down. Rather they believe but that they are “right” most of the time. No one is right all the time. Learning how to communicate strong opinions without becoming controlling or condescending is a crucial skill in an intimate relationship. When you care about your spouse, you don’t want them to feel put down and in need of trying to “win” to defend their worth. These marriages need help to discover whatever personal or dynamic issues are driving competitiveness. Without a change in these patterns, these competitive relationships remain damaging to both partners.
#4 The Overly-close (Enmeshed) Marriage
On the surface, a “two peas in a pod” couple seem to have a wonderful, fulfilling marriage. They seem to experience romantic bliss, finish each other’s sentences, and see the world almost through the same set of eyes. But often, these unions go wrong precisely from too much closeness. These marriages can lead to partners feeling like they have a noose or leash around their necks. The sign that this relationship is becoming awful is when one or both people begin to feel personally stifled, isolated from their friends and families, and resentful.
In the overly-close couple, people lose sight of who they are as an individual. This dynamic results in a lack of self-actualization. A healthy person will want their need for individuality to emerge. The under-development of each partner will threaten the fragile security of the too-close couple. Couples that enmesh in this way start out feeling that they don’t need to be close to other people. They believe that creating distance from friends and family members makes their bond special, stronger and more secure. This style of marriage struggles with 1) immaturity, 2) insecurities in one or both partners and 3) a lack of understanding of how to set healthy personal boundaries.
Eventually, this type of relationship becomes combative and lonely. At least one partner will begin to miss their friends and family, and the diverse experiences of life that include other people. The person will begin to realize that they are not setting personal goals or achieving the goals that they may have had before they entered the marriage. The closeness that once felt like love begins to feel like a stifling form of emotional abuse and selfishness. Unless these partners deal with their issues, this awful union will create constant conflict and depression. This marriage should end set each partner free to be themselves.
#5 The Parallel/Disconnected Marriage
This kind of marriage is more subtle in its awfulness but is still a deeply unhappy existence. In the parallel/disconnected pattern, there is a lack of connection and a deficiency of varied and shared emotional experiences that result in loneliness, anger, and depression. A healthy level of parallelism can make room for couples to miss each other. A healthy self-other dynamic maintains healthy chemistry.
However, if too much of a parallel pattern exists, couples become less aware of each other and become emotional strangers. These couples may continue to engage in shared activities and yet still not feel close. They often go for a long time, not wanting to include each other in certain parts of their lives that involve other people and new interests. Recapturing an attachment to each other can seem impossible.
There are various causes of becoming a parallel couple. Early life experiences of abuse or abandonment can cause a sense of personal insecurity and fear of getting close to another person. As a child, keeping emotional or physical distance from parents or others who have hurt you becomes a normal coping mechanism.
Such a pattern can affect how one relates later in life to an intimate partner. This kind of distance can feel normal coming from such a background. This dynamic between spouses will cause more distance than connection due to the difficulty of managing the fear of abandonment or abuse. Disconnection can also be a sign that partners are not compatible in areas that are important in a long-term relationship.
The parallel pattern can also develop due to unresolved resentments and hurts within the marriage. These negative emotions become justifications for keeping a distance from one’s partner, protecting oneself, or as revenge for being unfairly or disrespectfully treated. Over time, a parallel dynamic encourages the partners to seek new experiences and other people to be close with, to the exclusion of each other.
These separate experiences will begin to fulfill certain needs that can reduce the desire or interest in reconnecting. Feeling chronically lonely, bored or angry within a parallel relationship is awful. Leaving is preferable to settling for so much less than you want.
#6 The Dishonest Marriage
The saying, “nobody likes a liar” could not be truer than when talking about marriage. By definition, intimacy involves an open, honest, and mutual sharing of feelings, wants, needs, and thoughts. Most people think of a happy marriage as having those qualities. It is a place where you can be yourself, express yourself and trust your partner. The worst part of a dishonest marriage is that one or both partners cannot trust the other and do not feel secure, respected or close to each other.
People develop a habit of lying for many reasons. It can be a form of control. Lying can make someone feel that they can influence outcomes that protect them from conflict. The liar seeks to feel powerful, smart and, protected from judgment or abandonment. By not sharing the truth about what they are doing or thinking, the liar remains less vulnerable and less intimate. Lying can also be a sign of shame. The shame-based liar fears that being honest will cause their partner not to respect them or stay with them, so lying becomes a justification for avoiding rejection.
A habit of lying can also be a way to retaliate when one feels wronged. By lying, one pushes the other away and feels superior and in control of the relationship. Over time, partners can sense dishonesty. They sense the distance and notice the inconsistencies in communication and behavior. Whether the lying is about something significant or insignificant, lying destroys the foundation needed for a healthy partnership.
When the source of the dishonesty revealed, the dishonest partner can change their behavior and take responsibility for lying. These marriages can heal and recover. But without targeted work on why lying has become a part of the marriage, these marriages become combative, abusive, depressing and lonely. Such a marriage can be awful enough to warrant a divorce, despite the loss of what might have been.
A healthy relationship is as healthy as each partner in it. Unresolved personal issues will create patterns that will cause a relationship to fall into one of these awful patterns. Improving self-awareness is crucial for a relationship to succeed. It takes courage to leave a bad relationship, but doing so makes it possible for a happier one to follow.
About the Author
Rebecca Sperber, M.S., MFT Rebecca Sperber is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice for more than 20 years. Rebecca works with individuals, couples, families, and groups dealing with communication, conflict resolution, and emotional coping skills. Areas of specialty include depression, anxiety, addiction recovery, marriage counseling, codependency, autism, and dating and relationships. https://www.rebeccasperbermft.com/