3 Dynamics That Will Destroy a Relationship

{4:00 minutes to read} It is not unusual for married couples to develop unhealthy ways of settling disputes between them. Defensiveness, dismissiveness, and competitiveness often insinuate themselves into the minutia of everyday life, turning the business of maintaining a family into an enterprise characterized by a lack of supportive and meaningful communication and connection. If any of these three dynamics exist in your relationship, you may need to take stock—and perhaps seek professional guidance.


There is often a difference between the intent to criticize and the perception of criticism. In each case, the specter of defensiveness is waiting in the wings, ready to turn a simple disagreement into a tit-for-tat escalation. Unfortunately, this game of one-upmanship misses the point; the traded barbs between the parties start to have less and less to do with the initial point of contention:

“You left the cap off of the toothpaste tube.”

“Yeah, well, you left the water running in the shower.”

Leaving the water running in the shower has nothing to do with leaving the cap off the toothpaste. Instead, it is a way of saying: You’re worse than me. It’s just defensive. Such adversarial positioning is what often prevents parties from improving their relationship.


Closely related to defensiveness is dismissiveness. When someone is dismissive, he or she devalues the other person and/or their opinion. John Gottman would call this contempt. See if you can recognize any of these common, dismissive thoughts in either you or your spouse: 

  • Your opinion is not worth much to me.
  • I don’t value your contributions to my life or to the marriage.
  • Because I’m unable to communicate well with you, I dismiss you as being beneath me. 


When spouses or partners are competitive, they are continually making note of what they are gaining from the relationshipwhether that’s time, money or appreciationinstead of what the other person is gaining. One spouse is constantly comparing his or her contributions to the marriage to the other person. Competitive spouses keep a virtual (or maybe literal) balance sheet meant to prove that they always have a positive moral worth that their spouse is lacking. In their minds, they hear refrains such as: 

  • Am I satisfied and happy?
  • I’m not getting enough because I’m getting less than you.
  • I’m finally happy because I’m getting more than you. 

Competitiveness is a familiar fixture in the world of divorce negotiations, but it usually starts happening years before the couple steps foot in a mediator’s office. In fact, long-brewing competitiveness is a frequent impetus for compelling spouses to seek out mediation in the first place. 

How Do We Change the Dynamic? 

To acknowledge and admit that a difficult dynamic exists in your relationship is the first step to changing it. 

The question then becomes whether or not you feel safe talking to your spouse or partner about the dynamic. Bringing up the topic risks opening a Pandora’s Box potentially filled with defensiveness, dismissiveness, and/or competitiveness. 

Marriage counselors, family mediators or family therapists can help facilitate the conversation and maintain a safe space to talk about the issues. Many mediators—in addition to their own suite of services—have robust professional networks filled with mental health practitioners who can help facilitate better communication between spouses and help them navigate through stuck places. For more information about what I do and how I can offer an appropriate referral for your situation, contact me today.

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