Emotional Health

Knowing Your Value: When to Stay, When to Leave

However, there are situations in which you are being undervalued and not treated well that may be serious or chronic enough to warrant leaving, or certainly considering it. Again, you should consider whether or not these are situational (he lost his job and is angry, frightened and drinking too much, at this time) as opposed to something more persistent, such as a character flaw or true lack of love and respect.

John Gottman, who with his wife and other colleagues has identified what makes for a lasting marriage versus what predicts divorce, says a lot can be seen in the way couples fight.

He focuses not on the issues that cause conflicts between partners but the way they interact when they are together. Many experts predict that fighting about money or sex or the children is deadly to relationships. Partners must be on the same page about these things, they assert, and yet most couples have conflicts in all these areas—and most marriages do indeed fail. “The chance of ending a first marriage over a 40-year period is 67 percent,” he says. Yet what Gottman discovered is that while some people can fight endlessly about these earth-shattering issues and stay together, other couples can break up over who is going to walk the dog.

As Gottman studied how couples handle conflict, he realized that fighting is not only universal, but that it is necessary to marital satisfaction. The trick that “emotionally intelligent” couples know is that tone often is more important than content. Gottman observed that couples who treated each other with respect fared much better. They could be blisteringly angry but still come out of an argument unscathed if they did not demean their partners.

However, those couples who did not understand this and whose fighting style revealed feelings of contempt for their spouses were later found to divorce in high numbers.

In marital conflicts, Gottman came up with a list of characteristics that are particularly negative, which he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” since they signal impending doom if left unchecked.

John Gottman’s four types of fighting behavior that are most destructive include the following:

  1. Criticism—especially attacking your partner’s personality or character.
  2. Contempt—Attacking your partner’s sense of self with the intention to insult or psychologically abuse him/her.
  3. Defensiveness—Seeing yourself as the victim, warding off a perceived attack.
  4. Stonewalling—Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict.

In these examples, you can identify the some underlining feelings that cause this behavior. Contempt and criticism are both signs of lack of respect. Defensiveness and stonewalling also indicate that, as well as an unwillingness to negotiate or take responsibility for one’s own behavior in causing the problem.

Specific behaviors may not be as important when deciding to leave than how the couple deals with them. Things that are potentially catastrophic, like infidelity, may not lead to breaking up if the problem is dealt with honestly and with sincere regret. A crucial step is the “offending” partner needs to show what steps he is going to take to understand and change his behavior. Saying things will be different is not enough, usually. You must have faith that concrete steps are in place for working on change.

If you don’t know your value, though, you are more likely to tolerate disrespectful, contemptuous, and unkind behavior from others. You may not even see it as such, or may not have any sense in your head of how things can be better.

Some people have so little sense of how to escape mistreatment they isolate themselves from others altogether, leaving no room for love, support, or comfort at all. If you have been enduring mistreatment, neglect, contempt or even lack of support for years, the time to consider making room for something better is now.


Brzezinski, Mika. Know Your Value: Women, Money, and Knowing What You’re Worth. (2018).

Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last. (1996).

Kramer, Peter M.D.  Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy—and the Nature of Advice. (1998).


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