Monday, November 21, 2011

Little Cruelties And Marital Unhappiness

Many years ago, my friend Mary McVea was driving me to Chicago's O'Hare Airport after I had visited with her and her husband Robert, a close college friend.  "A lot of our friends are getting divorced," she said. "And when I ask them why, they tell me something that sounds pretty minor to me. And I feel like saying 'That's it??? Maybe it's just the last straw or something. But I find it puzzling."

I did, too, until I went back to school to become a marriage and family therapist. In my internship and after I was licensed, I encountered many couples in distress. Some of them were in crisis because of an infidelity or a gambling habit that had emptied family coffers or, in a few cases, overt abuse. But many ended up in counseling -- or divorce court -- because of a string of little cruelties that added up to marital estrangement.

What are the little cruelties that add up to marital distress? They're as unique as the couples involved.

There was the couple I met when I arrived at their spacious home to interview the man, a prominent doctor, for a magazine article. His wife welcomed me warmly, brought coffee and was returning with a plate of pastries when her husband said brusquely "Just set that plate down and get out! We have work to do." Her face burned with humiliation and anger as she silently withdrew from the room. The doctor didn't miss a beat, turning on the charm for the interview as I sat there stunned.

Then there were the couples who came for therapy:

The wife who never let her husband forget that she had "married down" and who corrected every statement he made -- incorrect or not -- with a running commentary on what he was saying, questioning both his accuracy and intelligence.

The husband who belittled every interest and pursuit of his wife as "stupid and insignificant" and fondly called her an "airhead." When challenged by others, he would smile and say "Aw, she knows that I love her!"

The wife who escalated ordinary disagreements to major crises by giving her husband the silent treatment for days at a time.

The jazz musician husband who had married an exceptionally talented jazz singer and then never seemed to miss an opportunity to make negative comments about her talent, actually hiring another female singer for his band.

The wife who had a habit of blaming her husband every time anything went amiss -- from a balky computer to a rained out picnic -- with one phrase: "Can't you do anything right?"

And there was the husband who snapped at his wife whenever he had a bad day at work and then wondered why she tended to keep her distance.

Of course many of these "little cruelties" are not little at all and some indicate larger problems within the marital relationship. But the fact is that casual cruelty, careless words and thoughtless actions all add up to marital tensions and estrangements.

Working with couples, I used to stress the importance of being kind to each other, even when depressed, mad, exasperated, disappointed or otherwise challenged. So much more is possible if disagreements are resolved amicably, if spouses are as courteous to each other as they are to good friends.  Some people talk to their spouses in a way they wouldn't dare with friends.

"Yeah," one husband in therapy told me. "If I talked to my friends the way I talk to my wife...well, I wouldn't because it would hurt their feelings."

And he thought his wife's feelings weren't hurt?  He squirmed a bit. "Well, she's my wife. She should understand that I need to blow off steam. That's just the way I am."

Just the way I am. I can't count how many times I've heard that in couples counseling as a way to justify casual cruelty. It's a way to say "I don't intend to change" or "Pleasing you isn't worth any discomfort on my part." It's a relationship dead-end.

So what can change a relationship headed downhill?

  • Think before you speak.  Is that "just kidding!" comment or barbed humor likely to hurt your spouse? Is that casual aside or that verbal victory worth the cost to your relationship? Consider that it's more important to be kind than to be relentlessly right. 
  • Remember that your spouse is -- or could be -- your dearest friend -- and treat him or her that way. If you wouldn't say or do what you're about to do to a dear friend -- why in the world would you say or do that to your spouse? 
  • Change established patterns. This is as necessary for the victim as well as the perpetrator. As long as you don't speak up, your spouse has little incentive to change. And for spouses who are casually cruel, this is a habit that needs to be broken if the marriage is to survive or thrive.
  • Work to eradicate hierarchical thinking in your relationship.  Those married to people they consider beneath them in social status, intelligence, education or simply overall worthiness may not only inflict considerable pain and hurt on their spouses, but also miss the joy of realizing their spouse's unique strengths and talents.  Growing up poor or middle class instead of rich doesn't mean a person lacks class. The absence of a college or professional degree is not an indication that a person lacks insight or intelligence (and the acquisition of such a degree is no guarantee that a person is smart, insightful or wise). Besides, there are many kinds of intelligence. In real life, emotional intelligence may far exceed intellectual ability in becoming a successful human being. Your spouse is your partner, not your personal joke punch line, not your verbal punching bag.
  • Don't minimize those little things.  Maybe they're not so little to your spouse. Maybe the accumulated weight of small hurts, flashes of anger, and small betrayals is adding up to a big problem.
After all, it's the small things, the casual, passing, small cruelties that can erode love and good will. 

And it's the small moments of connection and caring, of thoughtfulness and of kindness, one after another after another, that help love grow and flourish.

In marriage and in life, the small things can make a huge difference.


  1. So much could be taken care of with kindness, simple kindness. And why some folks treat their co-workers with more courtesy than their spouse is beyond me. Wise words- thanks for sharing!

  2. Kathy, there is so much wisdom and good advice in this post. I am printing it off and keeping it at hand -- it's so easy to take people you love for granted and to forget that your spouse is subject to the same feelings and hurts that you are...

  3. Clost to home post. I was married to the master of cutting comments. Puncture normal skin long enough with barbs and it becomes thin. I really feel for those who spend lifetimes in such situations.
    Arkansas Patti

  4. Dear Kathy,
    Your postings so often help me put into perspective things that are happening in my own life. This line especially spoke to me: "Consider that it's more important to be kind than to be relentlessly right." It seems to me that so many people are insecure and need to be right. Yet being relentlessly right can, I think, drive everyone away.

    The other thing I note is that when people need to be right all the time, they often become bullies. I wonder then how a marriage can survive.

    Thank you for offering us these wise words.


  5. A great post, Kathy, full of insight and sane advice. To me kindness is one of the essential virtues, though sadly under-rated and even mocked at times. It is NOT wimpish to be kind! No wonder St Paul included kindness in his list of the gifts of the Spirit.

  6. It always amazes me when people treat strangers better than their own family. They don't know or care how hurtful that is.

  7. Oh, what great advice.

    I am friends with a couple who are absolutely exhausting to "party" with. They both talk at once, desparate to be heard. He cuts her down -- laughingly, supposedly -- and she wants me to take sides, drawing me into it with "See? See how he treats me?" She will leave some day soon, and he will be surprised because, yes, that's just how he "is".


  8. Everyone should read this, Kathy. You bring up many wonderful points. Much of this reminds me of my colleague who was recently laid off and some of the challenges she experienced with her spouse over the years we worked together. I hope that now she isn't working that they will find a way to come to terms now that they're in a new situation, the kids moved on. May they learn some of those lessons.

  9. Our true selves are revealed in marriage and old habits are hard to break. It's worth working on if both want to be happy. Everyone wants to feel safe in a realtionship. It's tough sometimes. Remember why you love each other. Thank you for all of your wisdom.

  10. This is a very educative post, Kathy. The examples are powerful, making us think on the importance of kindness and good communication between spouses. I read once that condescending attitude is an indicator on predicting divorce.