Kathy McMahon, Psy.D. | Article

The 3 Biggest Mistakes You're Probably Making in Your Marriage Today: Part I

Happy Families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ---Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

It turns out that the opposite is true. Unhappy families have rigid patterns of behavior, restraining their behavior more than happy families. So the fact is that unhappy families are all alike, and science is teaching us how, and what to do about it.

Gottman's research has revealed specific patterns of negativity that he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse." It may be initially useful to think of these as a team of horses dragging a marriage into divorce. These are Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling and Contempt. Once two or more horses are "hooked up," and start working in tandem, they begin to powerfully pull the marital toward unhappiness. You can also think of these four playing off each other like an evil jazz quartet.

In contrast, solid marriages rest on a foundation of mutual respect, knowledge, shared meaning and purpose. As John Gottman Ph.D. observed;

"...they don't just get along, they also support each other's hopes and aspirations and build a sense of purpose into their lives together."

That sounds like a daunting task, particularly for couples grappling with different perspectives on an uncertain future.

The Great Marital Paradox

The science around how couples fight has revealed what I call the "Great Paradox" of relationship harmony:


That's right. Is your husband not as neat as you'd like him to be? Does your wife take too long getting dressed and makes you late for events? You can angrily fight about these issues, but to the extent that you habitually engage this way, you're likely to be damaging your relationship and it will get you nowhere. These types of fights might also be protecting both of you from discussing the hidden issues that drive these surface squabbles. Unless underlying value differences can be addressed in a spirit of mutual respect-- the bedrock of relationship happiness--shared meaning and purpose-will elude you. Happily married couples treat chronic differences differently. Partners still complain about differences, but they do it with a sense of humor; with more teasing than fury.


A "start up" is "the initiation of an unpleasant conversation you want to have with your spouse."

Gender Differences

Gottman has noticed that woman tend to lodge most of the marital complaints. They are likely to be the "bee keepers of the relationship." Let’s be realistic: living with a partner, you'll occasionally get stung, and you are going to have complaints about one another’s habits or behavior. But the way you care for that relationship hive--calmly and slowly, or excitedly and waving your arms--is going to impact how badly you'll get hurt (as well as harm the bees).

A complaint is narrow in focus, and is limited to the facts at hand.

Women, by and large, are the ones to complain in a relationship, and that's normal. You can do it gently and with smoke, like a professional beekeeper, or dramatically and stir up the hive. This is the difference between complaints and criticisms.

Criticism and Harsh Start-ups

Here are the same complaints, done as criticisms:

Complaint: "Can you please try to remember to put the toilet seat down when you use it?"
Criticism: "Are you impaired? How many times do I have to tell you to put down the toilet seat? Are you that lazy?"

Complaint: "I’m beat, and the kids need a bath and to be put to bed. Can you do it, because I've done it the last three nights and I’m making dinner.”
Criticism: "You could care less about your kids. They need a bath, but all you do is read the news!"

Complaint: "I’m sorry, honey, I am too tired tonight for sex. It is just too late for me. Let’s be together tomorrow night."
Criticism: "You want SEX? Tonight? Are you kidding me? I work like a dog all day and now I'm suppose to service you at night?! Forget it!"

When you read the above critical statements to yourself, imagine a woman running up to and opening a bee hive and waving her hands around wildly.

A criticism seeks to establish an overarching meaning to the behavior, evil intent or points out character flaws. And it comes out swinging with the first few words:

"You’re so selfish!"
"You’re so lazy!"
"You never help me!"

Gottman points out it is also relatively easy to transform a complaint into a criticism, by just adding the words:

"What's wrong with you!!!!"

It's a question nobody answers with the words: "I'm so glad you asked. Where do I begin?"

Research tells us that the first horse, criticism is pretty common, even in good marriages. The danger is when criticism becomes an establish pattern of how you interact.

What to Try

Women, who tend to be the ones to complain, can pay attention to how they start out their complains, and intentionally try to "soften" them, just as you would approaching a beehive. A little soothing "smoke" and a bit of honey. My Mother used to say "You can get more bees with honey, than you can with vinegar!" So start out with some sweet words of understanding:

"Look, honey, I know you worked late tonight, but I'm dead tired, too…”

Soft start-ups doesn't mean you have to hide your anger. It's fine to be annoyed at the consequences of your partner’s behaviors, but try to provide an explanation that doesn't suggest a character flaw.

NEXT UP: Mistake # 2 Stonewalling

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist, and a university professor. Formerly the Director of the Master's Program in Counseling Psychology at Antioch New England Graduate School, she now holds academic appointments in the doctoral program in clinical psychology at Antioch, and the graduate programs of St. Joseph College in West Hartford, and Cambridge College in Cambridge. She has served as Executive Board member of the Massachusetts Division of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and remains a clinical member. For over three decades she has been a Certified Sex Therapist-Diplomat and Sex Educator provided treatment, education and training in sex-related issues. Now having completed Level 3 training through the Gottman Institute and her practice is solely focused on couples and their problems. Contact her today to schedule an appointment.