Marriages Fail When Couples Get Stuck In These Two Toxic Relationship Dynamics

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Drake Baer

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Gwyneth Paltrow

Gwyneth Paltrow split from her husband, Chris Martin, in 2014. They "consciously uncoupled" after 10 years of marriage. Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

While new research shows that getting and staying married is one of the best things you can do for yourself, it's an unavoidably complex and difficult endeavor.

Take it from Peter Pearson, therapist and co-founder of the Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California.


"In all marriages, you have so many interdependent interactions, from roles and responsibilities in the house to emotional and sexual aspects of the relationship," he tells Business Insider. "Your future is really tied to each other in so many ways."

But that shared future can go off course if couples get stuck in an unhealthy pattern of behavior.

"That's when they come to us," Pearson says.

He says that 60% of the couples who come to his practice are stuck in one of two toxic dynamics: conflict-avoidant and hostile-dependent.


Each of these dynamics isn't much fun to be in, for very different reasons: 

A conflict-avoidant dynamic is defined by fear
"For both people, the emotional risk of speaking up outweighs the potential benefit of bringing things up to the surface and working through them," Pearson says. As a result, "you contort yourself to be acceptable to your partner so they won't reject you or leave you," he says. "Each person compromises their wishes, their desires, their identity — the things that make them themselves."

A hostile-dependent dynamic is defined by conflict
In this case, each person is "in a competition to be right," Pearson says. There's "lots of finger-pointing and blaming," he says, all in an attempt to take control. The underlying assumption is that if you can define "the problem with the relationship," then you can get the other person to shape up, and you'll finally get some relief.

But the drama masks what these behaviors really are: coping mechanisms that come out as a couple spends more and more time together.


"Most couples start off wanting to be nice to each other, good to each other, responsive to each other," Pearson says. "As differences begin to emerge in the other person's value system, then each person will start to fall back on their reflex coping mechanism. If I'm really conflict avoidant, then I'm not going to surface my disagreement because I don't want to risk a conflict, so I start compromising myself."

If the relationship is to move forward, each partner will have to go through the uncomfortable process of differentiation, where each person has to identify their values and communicate them to the other person — all while recognizing that their partner will have different values from their own. 

That can lead to a breakthrough — or a breakup.

Differentiation starts when one person decides "to take on the risk of speaking up and in a sense start fighting for their rights," Pearson says. "They get tired of compromising themselves, so they say, 'I don't care, I have to start speaking up, even if my spouse leaves me. I don't care, I will find a way to exist on my own.'"


  • tag
  • relationships,

  • therapy,

  • marriage,

  • pyschology,

  • toxic dynamics