3 ways to mess up your marriage…

and your other relationships at work, home, and play

There are certainly more than 3 ways to mess up your marriage… today, however, we’ll be looking just 3…and changing them will change ALL of your relationships – and make you happier.

Carla stared at Steve in disbelief.

All she had wanted to do was have a simple conversation about where to go for dinner… and somehow they ended up in an argument, yet again.

I don’t know what I said that upset him so much. How sad is it we can’t even talk about a stinkin restaurant? Why bother with the date at all?

Her disappointment deepened as she stared at him.  “I don’t know why we always go where you want to go,” she said. “Just once, I’d like to pick. What difference does it make? It’s just food…”

Steve stared at his wife, stunned.

Why does she have to get so upset over such a small thing? Why is it so hard to make a decision around here? If it’s “just food” why can’t she just do what I suggest? I’m trying to take her out – I’m the one who pays for everything. She should be glad I’m spending money on her at all. 

The two of them quietly stared at each other.

The clock ticked in the kitchen.

Neither knew how to make it better. Both wondered if they would make it worse by continuing.

Carla felt the pressure to acquiesce.

If I don’t give him his way, he will brood all night and the date will be ruined. And if I cave, I’m going to be miserable all evening, knowing I don’t count. I should have known better than to even have an opinion. I don’t even want to go anymore. This is too hard.

Her eyes welled as she looked away.

Steve sighed.

There goes another date. At least this one didn’t cost me anything. I don’t know why she has to be so emotional. She’s going to be upset all evening, now. I don’t even know why I’m trying here anymore. It doesn’t matter what I do, she’s not happy. She thinks I’m a big failure – she’s always disappointed with me. She can’t even look at me.

“Let’s just forget about it,” Steve said, wandering away.

“Fine,” Carla angrily responds. What’s the point? He doesn’t love me.

Ever have “discussions” like this one? Last week, I wrote about how important it was to breathe before responding. This skill, the ability to be calm during conflict, begins with an insertion of a pause in a conversation will help you as you process through the discussions you may be having that look like the one above.

Have you had a conversation like the above lately?

If you haven’t, heads up – you may. Whether it is with a spouse, a sibling, a kid, or a close friend, this pair’s “discussion” often becomes an unfortunate reality for too many intimate relationships.

There are a number of common factors at play here, but today we’ll discuss the three deeply rooted ones which stem from our Western culture, all setting these two up to fail:

  • The need to win
  • Disrespect for self & others
  • Rumination

The need to win

Westerners are workers, people coming from generations of achievement, hard work, aspirations and dreams. We spend our time from grade school and on, devouring information about how we conquered this or that, overcame odds to settle this place or another, and big successes become the normative for the foundation of our culture. What we fail to see about history is that it is made one day at a time, one hard moment to the next, and we ignore the suffering, stress, and sacrifice over the many years it took for us to achieve.

The media has us believe that winning must take place at all costs – and rewards only that. No one celebrates the silver-medalists like we do the gold. People pay attention to front runners, easily forgetting the “also rans,” even when that is a spot of equal honor. We remember the quarter-back’s name, but not the tight-end, or the blockers on the football team. I’ve never experienced this so deeply as recently, having co-authored, With All Due Respect, a parenting book with a good friend of mine who happens to be an expert. I’ve been surprised and a little frustrated at having to constantly remind everyone from my publisher to the media that she is part of the equation. She wrote as much of it as I did, and the dream for it originated with her – but it’s hard to help others see that consistently, probably because she’s not the first name on the book.

We see the carry-over of this in all of our relationships – in the smallest of ways it shows up as neediness – the need to be right. Westerners are a prideful lot, so not being “on top” of the pile, even within our own organizations – including the family – shows up as an inability to be humble…a desperate need to establish significance by being right. At the core of this is a deep-seated insecurity where we feel “less than” if we aren’t correct. In Cincinnati, people argue about which chili is best – Gold Star or Skyline, and heaven help those who like an even smaller contender.

Within our souls stirs a longing for recognition, for celebration, for awareness. From the time we are small children, we hide our iniquities, failures, mistakes, and frailties, not realizing that simply admitting them not only takes greater strength, but connects us to others in a way nothing else can. From Dr. Michael Austin, via PsychologyToday.com:

Interestingly, the empirical research on humility shows that this trait has great value. Humility has been linked with better academic performance, job performance, and excellence in leadership. Humble people have better social relationships, avoid deception in their social interactions, and they tend to be forgiving, grateful, and cooperative.

We miss that humility is one of our greatest strengths. For Carla and Steve, it’s opposite, pride, puts wedges in their relationship which over time, have the potential to destroy it.

Disrespect for self & others

Both Carla and Steve disrespect themselves and their spouse in these ways:

  • Failing to listen to each other
  • Ascribing negative motives to the other
  • Labeling each other and themselves negatively
  • Putting what they want over what the other person wants

Here’s how the conversation could have gone, if Steve had chosen to be respectful of his wife’s thoughts:

“Carla, that’s an interesting suggestion – tell me more about why you want to go to that restaurant…”

He could have been thinking, Hmmm. Mexican food was not what I was thinking, but I’m sure she has a good reason for wanting to go there. I wonder what it is.

And if Steve had not done the above, Carla could have started a respect cycle by saying, “Would you be open to a different idea, or do you have your heart set on that Thai place?”

Her thoughts may have looked like this: He seems to have his heart set on Thai food, I wonder if he had Mexican for lunch at work? I’ll find out.

Their thoughts and their words consider the other’s point of view – without threat.

Respect for self establishes the validity of our opinions. Respect for others creates safety to express their opinions. Without respect, healthy, truthful, mature communication cannot occur.


Respectful behavior toward ourselves is the freedom and confidence to decide our own opinion is valid, whether someone else agrees with it or not. We don’t choose to see threat in the face of disagreement or a difference of opinion.

Respecting self means being defined by my own set of values, my own thoughts, my own actions – not yours. It’s knowing that differences of opinion are not threats.


The most detrimental of thought process, rumination runs rampant in our culture, destroying our relationships.  The word originated in the 16th century to describe how cows chew their cud – over and over and over again. From the Oxford Dictionary:



verbverb: ruminate, 3rd person present: ruminates, gerund or present participle: ruminating, past tense: ruminated, past participle: ruminated

  • 1.think deeply about something:“we sat ruminating on the nature of existence”synonyms:think about, contemplate, consider, meditate on, muse on, more
  • 2.(of a ruminant) chew the cud.synonyms:think about, contemplate, consider, meditate on, muse on, more

Word Origin mid 16th century: from Latin ruminat- ‘chewed over,’ from the verb ruminari.

Rumination is the repeated thinking patterns stemming from unprocessed negative events between people. It’s the absence of discussion when something bad happens, the absence of listening to the feelings of another who is hurting, the shutting down of communication (usually because of perceived threat – defensiveness – and a lack of safety), and it leaves issues unresolved. The mind deeply desires closure, so it will fuss and fret and try to resolve issues, ascribing motives, trying to make sense out of another person’s behaviors. Add this to our high level of pride and lack of humble hearts and we brew up a stew of discouragement and dissatisfaction with the relationship, morphing it into something negative.

From Gottman.com, and The Zeigarnik Effect, by writer Ellie Lisitsa:

According to Dr. Gottman, “If a couple’s negative events are not fully processed (by attunement to each other), then they are remembered and rehearsed repeatedly, turned over and over in each person’s mind. Trust begins of erode… eventually, one is staying in a relationship, but that relationship is a veritable fountain of negativity (and that) cognitive dissonance is like a stone in one’s shoe.” As this process progresses slowly but surely, we begin to think of our partners with a universally critical eye, with suspicion and mistrust – we begin, even unconsciously, to vilify them.

“It’s no surprise she hasn’t called yet, I bet she isn’t even at the office! She never thinks of me…” or, “Oh, of course… he’s out drinking again. Leaving me with the kids, again. He knows how stressed out I am! What a selfish jerk!”

Failure to listen and work through differences of opinion creates an environment ripe for rumination for the other person. When we respond defensively to another’s concerns, problems, or opinions, in effect, shutting them down, they are left with these unresolved thoughts in their heads. The research shows the natural tendency is then to ruminate upon those thoughts – and unfortunately, the feeding of the negative thoughts results in our own dismantling of the trust we once had for the other person.

Research now shows that rumination also significantly increases your risk of anxiety and depression.

Choosing to entertain & dwell negative thoughts or allow them to rule our minds, is also something that we can choose STOP doing.

This doesn’t mean that we become imbeciles disconnected with reality, but rather we avoid distorting our thoughts to the negative – because it destroys us and our relationships.

In essence, we avoid judging the other person or ourselves. 

Research shows that this criticism is one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” that destroy relationships – and it begins with rumination.

Both Carla and Steve ruminated and allowed their thoughts to spiral. Maybe they needed some help stopping – a conversation with a good friend will add perspective if that person is mature enough to not just take your side.

Instead of choosing to avoid the conflict and make assumptions, which disrespects themselves and each other, they simply should have listened to the other person, being open to another person’s point of view – and choosing later how their own thoughts fit in with that perspective.

Bottom line: Recognize that other people’s opinions are just that – theirs. Stop making differences a threat by respecting yourself and them, and actively choose to refuse to ruminate. If you practice these things, you’ll eventually get better at them, and your relationships will improve. 

What about you?

  1. How threatened do you feel when someone else thinks differently than you do? Do you easily judge another person and their point of view?
  2. How often do you have foolish arguments about small things?
  3. How is your esteem tied up with being right?
  4. Where could you stand to be more open-minded to the opinions of others? What is in the way of being comfortable with your own opinions when they are different than someone else’s?
  5. Are you prone to rumination? If not, how have you overcome it? If you are a ruminator, what do you need to begin doing to stop?
  6. How are these things discussed today effecting your relationships in your family, with your friends, and at work? What steps do you need to implement to move in a more positive direction? What will happen when you do?

Are you signed up? We’re on the Respect 101 Journey – sign up in the sidebar and get these delivered to your inbox so you don’t miss a single one! 🙂 If you are already signed up for the marriage tips, you’ll get them already, so no need to sign up again.

If you are a parent of kids 8 and up, you’ll want to check out my co-author, Debbie Hitchock’s, blog – it deals with how these thoughts impact your relationships with your kids. 

Here’s a few more articles you might find interesting:

How to lose the weight and keep it off (and yes, it really works!)

How to deal with a teen who is disrespectful

Can’t wait to dialogue with you in the comments this week!

Love to you,


titus 2 women leadership

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “3 ways to mess up your marriage…

  1. Wow, is this hitting home. This touches on what I’m learning and working on in “How We Love” by Milan and Kay Yerkovich. It’s been a hard journey. I’m seeing things about myself that aren’t flattering. The great thing about it is it’s helping me understand the hurts that are the origin of some my hardest struggles. The workbook that goes with the book provides a lot of help in working through the hurts, which is allowing me to change my self/relationship destructive responses.

    Great post!!!

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