Failing Marriage Signs and How to Fix Them?

Maria and George are married for seven years and are in their late thirties. Both are experiencing a failing marriage.

“My husband isn’t bothered about my needs. According to him, whatever I say or do is pointless. Discussions are of no use as nothing changes”, says Maria.

George, on the other hand, is tired of complaints. “She’s always criticizing. I want to do things with her – traveling, baking, making out by the beach. But she has some issue or the other troubling her. Why can’t we leave these worries aside and just live our life”.

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Like Maria and George, there are numerous couples who have such a dialogue taking place between them.

Such toxic conversations become breed ill feelings, are signs of a failing marriage, and give way to fault lines that eventually lead a couple to divorce.

Why do such fault lines exist?

What are the early signals that predict the likelihood of a couple getting divorced in the near future?

Is there a way a couple can save their failing marriage?

Daniel Goleman, an internationally renowned psychologist and author of the bestseller book ‘Emotional Intelligence‘, says that these fault lines have their roots in childhood.

In other words, the cause of such fault lines between partners can be traced back to the differences between the emotional worlds of both boys and girls.

Emotional Differences Between His and Hers


The failing marriages indicate that there exist two separate emotional worlds in a marriage, that is, his and hers.

The toxic feelings that Maria and George have for each other have their roots in childhood.

Such emotional differences have their roots in the way girls and boys are brought up and the separate emotional worlds they are exposed to as they grow up.

The following table lists some of these differences.

Emotional Parameters Girls Boys
Differences in Emotional Lessons Parents talk about emotions more with their daughters as compared to their sons. As a result, girls get more knowledge about emotions relative to the boys. Further, mothers specifically use more emotional words with daughters, display a variety of emotions, and discuss more feelings in detail as compared to sons. Sons, on the other hand, get less information about emotions. Mothers relatively make less use of emotional words and showcase a lesser variety of emotions with sons. Instead, they discuss in detail the root causes as well as the outcomes of emotions such as anger.
Communication Skills Girls develop language skills more quickly relative to boys. This gives them the expertise to express their feelings by skillfully using words. Boys, on the other hand, go physical and relatively lack the ability to put their feelings in words. Since they are relatively less skilled in using words, they are unaware of not only their own emotional state but also of others.
Confrontational Strategies When angry, girls are more skillful in using covert strategies like bitter gossip, excluding people from their social groups, etc Men, however, not being adept in such secretive strategies, express their anger openly.
Differences in The Way They Play Girls play in small and closed groups, seek greater cooperation, and showcase less aggression. Boys prefer large groups while playing and seek competition.
Autonomy Vs Connectedness Girls seek connection. That’s the reason, they fear things, people, etc who try to destroy their relationships. Boys seek independence and autonomy. That’s the reason, they are scared of anyone who tries to curb their freedom.
Ability to Read Emotional Cues Because girls are exposed to more emotions while growing up, they have a greater ability to understand verbal or non-verbal emotional cues and are more adept at expressing their feelings. Boys seek to cut down emotions that make them vulnerable to emotions such as guilt, fear, etc
Empathy Girls are relatively more adept at reading the untold feelings of others via one’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and other non-verbal signs. That is, girls are more empathetic. Boys are less empathetic. That is, they are relatively less skilled in understanding the emotional states of others.
Emotionality Since girls are exposed to a greater variety of emotions, they not only experience emotions with greater intensity but also showcase variability in emotions. Boys are less emotional.

If you look at the differences in the emotional worlds of both boys and girls during childhood, it becomes clear that women are more emotionally wise as compared to men.

Therefore, women are better equipped in helping the marriage last as compared to men.

Men Vs Women: Things That Matter in a Relationship

Women Men
  • Women seek healthy communication. For them, affinity in a relationship means talking things out about their relationship.
  • Men do not understand what women want. For them, affinity in a relationship means indulging with their wives in a variety of things like baking together instead of talking about their relationship.
  • Women as compared to men have a less blooming picture about marriage.
  • As per one of the studies, men have a more blooming picture of all aspects of marriage such as love, finances, relationship, etc.
  • In a troubled marriage, women are more open and outright about complaining.
  • Men, as mentioned above, move away from confronting. Further, their relatively blooming picture about marriage together with their hesitation not to confront makes women complain all the more.
  • Women expect men to understand non-verbal cues such as sad expressions on their face. However, men’s inability to understand such signals together with their unwillingness to ask about the problems in a relationship spoil things further.
  • Men, as mentioned above, lack the ability to understand non-verbal cues. Thus, problems increase where men are laid back in bringing problems to the table together with their inability to read the non-verbal cues.

Key To a Successful Marriage: How To Disagree?

Dr. Daniel Goleman points out that it is these differences between the emotional worlds of men and women that further guide them on how to handle disagreements and problems in their relationship.

And it is this way of handling issues that is responsible for making a marriage last or save a failing marriage.

Many of us, typically hear about some specific reasons that become the cause of a failing marriage. These could be one of the following.

Reasons That We Believe Lead To a Failing Marriage

  • the frequency of a couple of having sex,
  • issues related to debt and finance,
  • The manner in which children are disciplined, etc.

However, contrary to this common belief, there are failing marriages, not because of these issues mentioned above. But because there is no pact between men and women on “how to disagree?”.

Since now you know that men and women have inherently different emotional worlds, they follow different ways to deal with emotional events.

Therefore, it is important for men and women to understand these inherent differences for if they fail to do so, they are bound to be emotional differences that would eventually lead to making them fall apart.

So this brings us to the next question that why marriages earlier used to last despite different emotional worlds of men and women?

You might have often observed your mother or grandmother saying “They had no choice as all they could do was adjust”.

Despite different emotional worlds of men and women, marriages in the earlier times lasted. Some of the reasons that made marriages work in earlier times include:

  • societal pressure – both men and women had the fear of society because divorce in those times brought disgrace.
  • No financial liberty for women – the majority of women in those times were dependent on men for their financial needs.

Therefore, even if there was no commonality or any understanding between men and women in those times, marriages lasted.

Now, though in modern-day, societal pressure and financial independence are no longer factors that keep men and women together, what is important for making a marriage survive is the emotional understanding. In other words, emotional intelligence can save help men and women to experience a failing marriage.

Key Failing Marriage Signs

John Gottman, a psychologist known for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, has undertaken 40 years of research with numerous couples.

In one of the studies undertaken by John Gottman, he was able to predict the likelihood of a couple to get divorced within the next three years with 94% accuracy.

The method used by him includes couples being videotaped for their conversations and sensors recording the changes in their physiology. For instance, facial expressions, heartbeat, blood pressure, etc.

Couples are then shown the videotape individually and are asked to express their thoughts at the time such a conversation took place.

Thus, based on his research, Gottman has come up with certain signals that predict divorce in the years to come.

  • When You Attack Your Spouse’s Character and Not His or Her Deed

In couples who are happy in their marriage, both husband and wife are comfortable in raising a complaint against each other.

Issues are bound to happen in a marriage and if you are easily able to complain, you are in a healthy marriage.

However, things worsen when such complaints are voiced in an outrageous way. Instead of questioning your partner’s deed that made you angry, you criticize his or her character.

To understand this, let’s consider the following dialogue between Maria and George.

Example of Character Assassination

Maria: Did you pay for the building maintenance?

George: It’s been just two days past the due date. I’ll pay for it soon.

Maria: No point in asking you. You are useless. Making late payments is your habit. You are least bothered about our respect in society.

If you see above, Maria’s complain does not question the actions of George. Instead, it is a personal attack against George when she says “You are useless. Making late payments is your habit”.

Instead of saying that she felt really bad for George making a late payment, she challenged his credibility that he always made late payments indicating that she cannot trust him for doing things the right way.

This is what leads to making the partner feel attacked, blamed, incapable, and disliked.

As a result, this would lead to a defensive reaction from George’s end in place of a reaction that would strengthen their relationship.

Things get worse when such criticism comes with hate. So when any of the two partners criticize the other’s character with a feeling of hate, there are certain physiological changes that take place.

These include faster heartbeat etc which indicates an early likelihood of a failing marriage.

  • When Criticizing Becomes a Habit

If you see yourself habituated to criticize and show disgust towards your spouse, these are signs that you think that your spouse is someone who is supposed to be condemned.

Thus, whosoever receives such constant disgust or criticism from the other would certainly be prepared to retaliate. This is where the familiar fight or flight response gets activated.

In other words, the partner at the receiving end will either fight back that could include a verbal attack or would prefer escaping or flighting from the situation.

This is even more dangerous as continuous withdrawal from the conversation can lead to devastation. It even cuts down the chances of working out the issues.

  • Parallel Poisonous Thoughts About Each Other

Example of Toxic Thoughts

George: “Maria don’t you think kids are getting spoiled by you fulfilling their every wish?” (Here, the real thought in George’s mind is that Maria is always complacent with kids.)

Maria: (Noticing the anger in her husband, she too replies with anger) “What do they ask for? Understand, they are children and it is our duty as parents to give them a good life. (Here, Maria’s real thought is that George is always complaining about her parenting style.)

George: (It is clearly visible now that George is further furious as he says in an irritated tone) “Let me handle the crying child. I will put him at ease.” (Here, George’s real thought is that Maria always goes against him. So it’s better that he deals with the child.)

Maria: (Now that she is certain of the fact that George is full of anger, she says slowly) “Don’t worry, I will manage. (Here Maria knows that George is uncontrollable. It’s better that she gives up.)

As per Aron Beck, the founder of Cognitive Therapy, these parallel conversations, that is, ones that are set outrightly and the ones that take place within the mind become a serious cause of a failed marriage.

Aron Beck says that the emotional conversation that takes place between the partners are guided by those silent presumptions that partners make about each other.

For Maria in the above case, this silent presumption could be “George is always angry and always overpowers me with his anger.” Thus, Maria feels like a guilt-free victim.

On the other hand, George could have a silent presumption, “She’s always against me and holds no authority to treat me in such an unjust manner.” Thus, George feels that it is his right to get angry about being treated so unjustly by Maria.

Once such thoughts of the guilt-free victim or holding the right to get angry for unjust treatment become automatic, both the partners look for events that confirm that they are either being victimized or unjustly treated.

That is to say, even if Maria does something good, George would always ignore that act or recall only those instances to mind that remind him of the manner in which he was unjustly treated.

Martin Seligman, a renowned psychologist, reveals that such upsetting thoughts about each other are a result of the kind of view the partners hold about each other.

  • My partner is innately flawed. Hence nothing can be changed about it. (Pessimistic View)
  • Sadness is permanently a part of my life.
  • My partner behaved unreasonably. It’s not him to be blamed but the circumstance which made him react in such a manner. As the circumstances improve, he might change.
  • This is not something that is inherently wrong or can’t be changed. Let me give him some time for I am hopeful that improving circumstances will certainly lead to a positive outcome.
  • When Crisis Become Ongoing

The outcome of such upsetting thoughts about each other is that these crises become continuous in nature.

That is to say, when husbands and wives are frequently prone to such negative attitudes, they are full of negative feelings that go out of control.

As a result, they are unable to hear each other out clearly and are not able to reply with a clear mind.

All they want to do is either stop the discussion, run away, or fight back.

Now, different people have different limitations when it comes to taking such negative attitudes.

Some people get triggered even by a slightest of a comment made by their partner, while others have a higher threshold limit.

Well, such emotional outbursts are common in every marriage. The real problem occurs when these emotional outbursts occur frequently.

This makes the partner feel pressurized by the other and makes him highly watchful of signs of any further attack, humiliation, complaint, and thus is bound to overreact even if slightest of such signs become evident.

Smallest of problems become bigger issues and such partners stay in the mode of being constantly hurt.

What Happens to Partners on the Receiving End?

A partner who is on the receiving end of such continuous crises begins to see all the issues in marriage as serious and the ones that cannot be mended.

In fact, such partners themselves are not in the state to work out any problems that they face in marriage.

Since they feel impossible to find any solution, they try to solve the problems on their own.

In other words, they start living a parallel life and start feeling alone in a marriage.

As John Gottman puts it ” The next step to such crises is divorce.”

Thus, once the partners are caught up in this continuous crisis, they lose self-control, the ability to understand their feelings as well as the feelings in others, and the ability to calm oneself and others.  This is another sign of a failing marriage.

How to Save Your Failing Marriage From Falling Apart?

Since both men and women belong to different emotional worlds, both need different training to save their failing marriage.

Let’s look at some of the advice that experts give to both men and women in order to save their failing marriage.

  • Men Should Not Avoid The Conflict

When your wife comes up with an issue or disagrees with you on a certain matter, it is advised that the men should not withdraw from the discussion.

They need to understand that the wife is bringing such issues out of love and with an intent to keep the marriage healthy.

But this is not to say that women cannot have any other intent of initiating such a conversation.Their intentions could include anger, aggression, etc.

Thus, men need to understand that when they refrain from discussing the matter out, they are letting an issue to grow in intensity that would ultimately lead to eruption one day.

However, if they are giving time and talking it out, they are releasing the pressure.

Thus, men need to understand that women bringing up a grievance is not equal to criticizing men’s character. They are rather making an effort to strengthen the relationship.

  • Men Should Not Offer A Pragmatic Solution Too Soon

As discussed earlier, women seek emotional connect, and thus, it is important for them that their partner listens to their grievances and understand their feelings about a particular problem.

Although men may not agree to what women feel about a particular subject matter, they are still advised to calm women down by patiently listening to their complaints.

If women find men offering a practical solution to the problem way too soon in the conversation, they take it as a sign of men treating their feelings as unimportant.

Therefore, husbands who are able to survive the conversation with patience are the ones who are able to calm their wives down.

This is what women want to seek. They simply want men to appreciate what they feel and treat it as just, even if men do not agree to it.

When a wife gets a feeling that she is being heard and respected to what she feels, she is calmed down.

  • Wives Should Not Make Personal Attacks

Men often have an issue that wives are way too harsh when they complain.

Therefore, wives need to make a concrete effort and need to be careful in not initiating a personal attack at their husbands.

As mentioned above, the complaint should always refer to the action that the husband did that made you upset and not criticize or express disgust against him as a person.

You need to be really specific and clear when raising a complaint that the particular action of the husband was one thing that you did not like.

For instance, “I don’t like the way you are relaxed about paying bills in time” instead of saying that “You are useless. You always pay bills late and are not concerned about our self-respect.”

Personal attacks like these would make the husbands feel hated, worthless, and blamed thereby leading him to become defensive or withdrawing from the discussion altogether. This becomes one of the causes of a failing marriage.

  • Empathy is a Golden Tool For a Healthy Marriage

When partners fight, the only thing that the aggrieved partner wants from the other is to be heard.

People who have successful marriages practice empathy, which is understanding and listening to the feelings of others.

Those couples who have empathy missing in their relationship are the ones experience a failing marriage and end up in divorce.

As we mentioned earlier, how the couples handle a fight is what decides whether they will stay in the marriage or separate.

Some of the systems that they can adopt to relieve the tension whenever it occurs can be one of the following.

Things That Couples Can Do To Avoid Tension

  • Sticking to the topic of discussion,
  • Empathizing with one another,
  • Making an attempt to reduce the tension,
  • Not discussing particular issues like money, sex, upbringing children. Rather, couples should nurture emotional intelligence that further improves the odds of working out disagreements.
  • Patiently listening to the other person’s feelings

Hence, these are some of the ways in which you can keep your fights healthy and disagree in a good way.

Although, it is one difficult task to develop such emotional habits for it takes immense patience and hard work.

As mentioned earlier, some of our emotional habits have their roots in childhood.

For instance, overreacting even on the smallest of insult, withdrawing on the slightest sign of facing your partner, etc, all these come from the initial relationships we had with our parents.

Such habits come in their full form in marriage and thus are equally difficult to change.

But, change is the only way to keep your marriage healthy. Thus, if you are willing to be together, developing good emotional habits is the only way out.

  • Develop the Ability To Calm Oneself Down

Whenever we are overwhelmed by strong emotions, the first thing that comes automatically is our urge to react.

People who are emotionally intelligent know how to control emotions and the consequent urges to act.

This is because when under the influence of emotions, you may end up reacting in a way that may neglect the very need of your partner from the marital relationship.

These needs could include feeling respected and loved, the fear of withdrawing from the relationship, feeling emotionally disconnected, etc.

Thus, it is extremely important to learn the art of soothing oneself when feeling unpleasant.

In other words, both men and women individually should be able to recover from the distress caused by a fight or a disagreement.

If you are emotionally overwhelmed, you lose the ability to hear, think, understand, and speak with a clear head.

Thus, it is important that you learn the ability to calm yourself down when facing an emotional outburst as a calmer self opens the gates to reaching an agreement.

One way you can do so is to raise a red flag when you see the signs of emotional distress and take a break.

During such a break, you may engage in activities that may help you to come out of emotional outbursts.

It could be anything that you like doing or is of your interest like painting, swimming, gyming, etc.

  • Challenge the Sceptic Thoughts

Remember those silent conversations that you have with yourself when your spouse gets into a fight with you –

  • “She’s always opposing me”
  • “I do not deserve such an unjust treatment”
  • “He always uses his anger to make me quite”
  • “He is useless and selfish”

If these are the thoughts that you have in your mind about your spouse, these either victimize you or make you feel that you have the right to be angry about receiving an unjustified treatment from your spouse.

One of the tactics to keep your marriage healthy is to catch hold of such thoughts and challenge them.

For this, you will have to be vigilant and see when such thoughts come?

Make yourself understand that you do not have to agree to such sceptic thoughts and make a continuous effort to bring to mind proofs that ridicule such thoughts.

For instance, if you as a wife feel that you are on the verge of being abandoned by your husband and typically say that he doesn’t love you or care about you, you need to challenge this thought the moment it comes.

This you can do by remembering all those events where your husband did things that made you feel loved, respected, and full of life.

Reminding yourself of the number of things that your husband did for you would help you to rephrase the sceptic thought as “He loves me and shows that he cares about me many times. Although, what he did right now was unreasonable and that made me angry.”

  • Listening And Speaking Not With The Intent To React

After empathy, another golden tool for having a healthy marriage is the ability to listen.

Instead of getting overwhelmed by emotions and concentrating on the particularities of an issue, couples should calm themselves down and listen to each other carefully.

This helps you to hear clearly as to what the other partner wishes or desires to say.

If you are listening with an intent to guard yourself, it would take the shape of either ignoring the spouse’s complaint or disapproving as to what your partner wants to say.

Such reactions showcase that you took your partner’s complaint as an attack rather than an opportunity to change behavior.

Now, the key to maintaining a healthy marriage is to listen to your partner’s argument and filter the negativity and the hostility being expressed in such an argument.

If you edit these distortions, you would be able to hear the message that your partner intends to convey to you.

Instead of taking an argument as a personal attack, take this negative statement as a red flag being raised by your partner, asking you to lay emphasis on what is being said.

As mentioned earlier, one of the important forms of listening not with the intent to guard oneself is empathy. That is trying to understand the feeling behind what your partner is saying.

And for you to show empathy, it is important that you yourself are not overwhelmed with emotions.

That is, you are calmed to an extent that you can listen and understand clearly what is being said.

In other words, if your husband is expressing a feeling of being treated unjustly, you are able to step in his shoes and feel the same which consequently gets reflected in your physiology, which is facial expressions, hand movements, etc.

However, if you yourself are emotionally overwhelmed, it is difficult to empathize with your partner.

This is because your feelings are so strong in nature that they will not allow you to be physically in harmony with your partner.

Hence, one of the common ways used by therapists as a part of marital therapy is called mirroring.

What is Mirroring Technique?

This is one of the forms of effective emotional listening which states that when one partner raises a complaint, the other repeats the words not just with the intent to understand the thought process behind the same, but also the feelings attached with such a complaint.

The partner mirroring the complaint checks with the other partner as he repeats the words to confirm that he has correctly restated the complaint.

If not, then he tries to make corrections so as to restate the complaint correctly.

  • Practice Till EQ Habits Become Permanent

Our emotional brain chooses reactions that we have learned in the early years of life.

Therefore, to showcase emotionally intelligent behavior, it is important that you practice EQ qualities to the extent that these become your reflex action.

In other words, during emotional outbursts, these emotionally intelligent responses become automatic and are accessed easily.

For lack of practice would make it difficult for you to access such responses in times when you need them the most.

Therefore, to make them as your first response to emotional outbursts, you need to practice them day in and day out.

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