What is more harmful than cheating in a relationship?

Marriages are much more likely to succeed when the couple experiences a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions; whereas, when the ratio approaches 1 to 1, marriages are more likely to end in divorce.” ~ World-renowned marriage researcher Dr. John M. Gottman of The Gottman Institute

What’s the big deal about negativity?

Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman is founder of a famous research-based approach for strengthening relationships, The Gottman Institute. Dr. Gottman’s most famous finding is his near-perfect record of predicting divorce in couples based on watching the first 3 minutes of an argument. His accuracy stands at an astounding 94%, so you should pay attention to what this means for your relationship.


Gottman describe the behaviors which land those 94% of couples in divorce court, and among them are what he called The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. I’ll look at these in more detail in future blogs, but until then, read here for more detail. In brief, the four horsemen are:


  • Criticism (putting down your partner in a more general fashion as opposed to making a specific complaint)
  • Contempt (obvious disgust with your spouse)
  • Defensiveness (focusing on deflecting blame rather than listening)
  • Stonewalling (tuning out or disengaging from the discussion)


All of these are negative actions which are driving a wedge in your relationship, and yes, these can be far more damaging than an affair!


According to relationship expert, Lucinda Loveland…


“Cheating is not the only way we feel betrayed.”


Because I am a self-confessed Sex and the City addict, and basically can’t move on from it being my main pop-culture reference point – here is a clip I love about forgiveness and what other things can affect a relationship besides cheating (it’s mostly the second half which is relevant, where they’re in the counselling session, but it’s all good stuff).

How does negativity hurt my relationship?

To expand on that point, Lucinda explains that complaining and negativity eventually break the trust in a relationship.

“…when a couple is engaged in constant negative interaction, and persistent negative thoughts about our partner as selfish, or only out for themselves, unsupportive, or even dismissive of our own needs. The fundamental issue isn’t about communication or problem-solving skills, but about trust for each other.”

Risk of Constant Criticism

What happens when someone is constantly criticized in small and large ways? He hides! Whether this is ignoring you, building a wall, or protecting himself by lashing out at you, he protects himself.


A second coping mechanism is creating a buffer zone. It may look like he’s zoning out, or he may physically distance himself by watching television, playing video games, spending time in another room of the house, or going to the gym or working late. He has to hide from the negativity.


This happened in my own marriage. When I had our son and was an exhausted working mother, my negativity went into overdrive. Yes, I needed support and help with our baby, but at the same time, I couldn’t see a single positive thing about my husband – and I let him know about it, daily. He started spending more time playing sport and hanging out with friends who lived nearby. It wasn’t until we discussed breaking up that I realized the contribution I was making to the breakdown of our relationship. I did some reading and created a daily plan to be more loving, respectful, and to give him space and confidence – and it changed everything. (The plan I created has now become LoveSparkME: Strengthen – for people who want to strengthen their relationship in 30 days).


negativityA third coping mechanism is substance abuse. Another glass of wine or overeating gives him comfort to face the onslaught of criticism.


Last, but certainly not least, there’s a strong potential for him to look for non-critical companionship outside your relationship. Both research and anecdotal evidence from cheating partners say that it is usually much less about the sex than it is about the companionship. Spending time with someone who thinks you are fabulous, beautiful/handsome, charming, interesting and laughs at your jokes is a very powerful aphrodisiac.

How can negativity play out?

There are so many ways in which negativity can manifest. For me, it’s usually in the form of picking apart my husband’s ideas and inspiration. He wants to buy an investment property, I think of all the reasons we can’t do it. He thinks of a new way to spend our savings, I am totally against it. Yes, it can come down to fundamental differences in how we view something (like finances), but I work daily to remind myself to let him figure things out for himself. Make some mistakes. Discover things for himself. I don’t always succeed, but I’m a work in progress.


Let’s think of another scenario which may sound similar to something which has occurred in your home.


You’re upset that your partner didn’t fix the broken shower door in the guest bathroom this weekend like you asked. It’s now Monday morning, and your mother is coming for a visit on Friday. There is no way you’ll get it done in time now.


You feel ignored because he didn’t do as you asked. You are stressed because visits from your mom are always tough and you don’t want her to have anything to complain about. Your feelings are hurt because he didn’t recognize how important it was for you to have a stress-free visit with your mom.


But you don’t say any of these things.


You lash out at him for being lazy, never following through on his promises, and not caring that your house is falling apart. You say that he never liked your mother anyway.


The fight goes way beyond a broken shower door in a matter of minutes, and it’s all due to negativity.

Stop Complaining and Start Communicating

  1. Don’t attack the person; attack the behavior you want to change. Gottman calls this focusing on the Complaint and not the Criticism.


  • Example: The toilet seat is left up…again. A complaint reminds your partner that the seat is up again and please remember to put it down when done. It focuses on the behavior. A criticism is telling him he must be a lazy caveman to not put the seat back down like a civilized person. This focuses on maligning the character of your partner.


  1. put-toilet-seat-down-memeFocus on what’s going well. You find what you look for in this life, and if you assume he has ulterior motives, you will easily find (or create) them. Look for ways he’s doing it right and comment on those.
  • Example: You see the toilet seat is down after he has used the bathroom. You come up behind him in the kitchen later and give him a hug and a kiss. “Thanks for putting the toilet seat down. I was in an emergency situation and you saved me from splashing my bum in the water!” This acknowledges good behavior rather than focusing on lapses, and it gives him a good reason to continue.


  1. Use “I” statements when you’re upset about something. This puts the focus on the way you feel and not on what you think about him and why he let you down. The conversation then flows from a point of honesty and not accusation.
  • Example: “I hate falling into the toilet when the lid’s not down! You know I sometimes go to the bathroom at night, and there’s nothing worse than a splashy midnight surprise! Would you mind making sure the lid is down so I don’t get my bum wet and be totally grossed out at what might be splashing me?”

Reframe into the positive

Using these suggestions, how would you reframe the problem with the broken shower door?


  1. Attack the problem and not the person: “Mom arrives on Friday and the door is still not fixed. I’m going to call a handyman today to get it done unless you have time to fix it before Wednesday. What do you want to do?”
  2. Focus on what’s going well: “I really appreciate you painting the guest room last weekend to prepare for mom’s visit.
  3. Use “I” statements to voice problems: “I get stressed when mom comes to visit. I always feel like a little girl around her, no matter how old I get! I want a little bit extra of your help and attention during this time to help me get through it.”


May the Love be With You


Not feeling the Love Spark?

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2 Comment

  1. John jacobson says: Reply

    Its the emotional connection that irks your partner. My wife found a lengthy messenger dialogue with a woman i never met talking about things she couldnt possibly relate to

    1. admin says: Reply

      That’s a good point. In fact, I was just asked to write an article today about emotional affairs… not to say you had one of course, but it isn’t always the obvious things which can cause issues in a relationship!

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