Kathy McMahon, Psy.D. View Entire Blog

Introduction: the 3 Biggest Mistakes You're Probably Making in Your Marriage Today

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. Unhappy families are all alike, and science is teaching what to do about it.

In the next series of blog entries, I'll be discussing research findings presented by the premier couples researcher John Gottman, Ph.D. For more than 30 years, Dr. Gottman has used the science of biofeedback, videotaping, and careful analysis to accurately predict both who is likely to stay together happily, who is likely to be unhappily married, and those who'll most likely end up divorce. Read on to learn about some of the biggest mistakes he's learned.


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

Most Issues That Spark Marital Conflicts CANNOT BE RESOLVED.

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 bicker about these kinds of issues, but HOW you talk about them is more impactful to your marriage than the solutions you reach. In fact, most of the time, you won't change too much about your partner's behavior. Often hidden issues and deeper meanings drive these surface squabbles. Unfortunately, unless value differences can be addressed in a spirit of mutual respect, the bedrock of shared meaning and purpose will elude you. Chronic differences are treated differently in happily married couples. Spouses still complain about them, but they do it with a sense of humor, with more teasing than fury.

I'll discuss three common mistakes that couples make today, and how to resolve them. Here they are in brief:


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

Woman tend to lodge most of the marital complaints. A "complaint" is narrow in focus, and is limited to the facts at hand. Here is an example of complaint:

"The kids need a bath and to be put to bed. I want you to help, because I've done it the last three nights."

Here are the same two complaints done as criticisms:

"You could care less about your kids. They need a bath, but all you do is read the news!"

Learn more about The First: Complaint vs Criticism in the next blog entry.

MISTAKE #2: Batting Back Influence aka Defensiveness

In this post, you'll meet Sam and Linda. Linda has just asked Sam to give the kids a bath, while she makes dinner, and a fight starts. As tensions heighten, and Linda becomes more agitated, Sam gets defensive and argumentative. What's going on? You can read about Defensiveness in this in this second blog entry and learn how to accept influence to improve your relationship.

MISTAKE # 3 Stonewalling

Tensions have worsened. Now Sam is refusing to even look at his wife, and is pretends to serenely read his email, but he is anything but calm. His heart is pounding and he's in a state of high arousal. This is terribly upsetting to Linda, but can actually shorten Sam's life!

Learn how to rescue this situation in the "Stonewalling" post.

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist, and a university professor. After has completed Level 3 training through the Gottman Institute and her practice is solely focused on couples and their problems.