The Three Levels of Marital Hell

A marital counselor describes the levels of marital hell

Dan Luzer’s post about two law professors who are in the 17th year of their acrimonious divorce proceedings reminded me of how I used to mentally classify the unhappy couples I worked with as a marriage counselor.

The classification is based on a surprising finding from the marital communication literature: Unhappy couples are about as likely to have positive interactions as are happy couples. It’s the negative interactions that mark out unhappy couples.

Everyone hurts, disappoints or misunderstands their spouse at least some of the time during marital communication. But in happy couples, those hurts are not reciprocated. You criticize your spouse about her bouncing a check and she says “I’m sorry” or “Hey, I feel bad already please don’t run me down for it” and then you say “I’m sorry”. In short, in happy couples, the negativity doesn’t get reinforced.

But unhappy couples have a harder time with that, and these are the levels of hell that can result:

(1) A standard of negative reciprocity. When one spouse is critical or hurtful, intentionally or not, the other spouse comes back negatively to get some revenge or express some pain. This is the level of hell in which where you are willing to hurt your spouse because they hurt you.

(2) A standard of aggression. Accustomed to a standard of negative reciprocity and expecting it to continue, spouses try to get the first verbal slap in. This is the level of hell in which you are willing to hurt your spouse because you expect them to hurt you.

(3) Mutually assured destruction. Beyond a standard of aggression exists the dark place where the divorcing law professors, as well as Pryce and Huhne, ended up. In this lowest level of hell, you want to hurt your spouse so much that hurting yourself at the same time seems a trivial consideration.

Some couples in all three levels of hell get back on a more satisfying track in their marriage. But the deeper a couple goes into hell, the harder it becomes to them to find their way back up to daylight.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

18 thoughts on “The Three Levels of Marital Hell”

  1. To be clear, your link describes 17 years of custody and support proceedings – not 17 years of divorce proceedings, which at least as I understand the term would mean the couple were still legally married, pending the end of divorce proceedings. The actual situation is wasteful, and has presumably been awful for their two kids, but isn’t nonsensical like “17 years of divorce proceedings”.

    1. In a sense, a couple who are still in marital hell 17 years after they decided to split the blanket are still married. They are still emotionally involved with their ex-spouse.

      Perhaps my biggest breakthrough in the counseling I got after my divorce was realizing the love and hate are both strong emotions, and they are linked. Or, as my counselor put it, “They are opposite sides of the same coin.” Realizing that helped me to make the decision to not engage my ex’s provocations. My wife put it succinctly, “She can’t push your buttons anymore.” It made dealing with her much easier, and reduced Alprazolam sales considerably.

    2. How can custody hearings go on for 17 years? The youngest child would be 18 at that point (and therefore an adult), and family courts usually allow competent children to express their custody preference by 14 at the latest.


      1. The linked story says one child is now 17 years old. I can only assume that someone is rounding up to 17 (or down to 17), or that gestation time is involved. In any case: not an adult. As to when the child is permitted to settle a custody dispute by declaring a preference: I take your word that 14 is normal, but the child in this case may have refused to pronounce, or may be ruled incompetent, or this case may simply be very far indeed from “normal”.

        Also: even if the custody issues might have been settled, the child-support might last through college, and then there’s alimony … so far as I, a layperson, can see, this could easily continue indefinitely.

      2. According to my attorneys (I needed two — two State divorce), Family Court judges always take a child’s expressed preference into account. However, I was also told taking it into account does not mean the child gets her preference. Besides that, a custody hearing will occur if either parent refuses to agree to the child’s desires.

        Besides that, support matters go on through the college years, although payments may be made to the child at that point. The article makes it quite clear that these two exemplars of the Bar have been busily abusing the court system for years. Of course they insisted on going to hearings.

  2. Once, for some reason, I was asked to see in my office a married couple who wanted my perspective on their troubled situation. After hearing them argue back and forth for a while, having no idea what to say, I told them to go home, place two chairs facing one another, set a timer for ten minutes, and spend that time looking at one another without speaking, promising them that this would lead to an important understanding for both of them.

    They went home, sat facing one another for about three minutes, realized that they had no intention of staying together, and went their separate ways. The arguments had been a way of obscuring their situation from themselves. IIRC it was a reasonably clean break (no kids or significant property involved).

  3. In my experience, many couples don’t get to level one only because one of the spouses affirmatively decides not to escalate or retaliate, but often as not, that decision is a silent one, and has no bearing on whether the other makes negative comments or retaliates in kind. It’s rarely an equal bargain.

    1. Not getting to level 1 under those circumstances just means that only one participant is in marital hell. It’s still marital hell, though.

  4. “two law professors who are in the 17th year of their acrimonious divorce proceedings”

    That sounds like torture.

    Grad school is still worse.

    1. I’ve got to disagree. Grad school was the best time of my life. I wasn’t wealthy, but I was making enough to cover my bills. I had no debts: no mortgage and I had a decent-but-not-great car. I had no responsibilities to anyone but myself, and I was studying things I wanted to study.

      Maybe that’s not heaven, but it beats going to home to unceasing mental abuse by a long shot.

  5. Couldn’t help but think of the classic Danny DeVito black comedy The War of the Roses.

  6. When the parties start using chilldren as pawns in the battle,they deserve a fourth level, though subjectively it´s still the third for them. (Plug for old post proposing a prophylactic divorce ceremony.)

  7. It’s not as if marriage is the only place this kind of self-destructive behavior goes on. Pretty much any situation where the frame is “winning” instead of getting to a good outcome will result in this kind of craziness. Almost all wars. The third or so of outsourcing projects that lead to worse productivity than before. Us legislatures. “Austerity”…

    “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”

    1. I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ

      A decidedly weird expression. (Yes, I know the source).

  8. Did anyone else find this shocking?

    “The pair’s divorce lawsuit involves more than 1,400 entries filed. A typical divorce tops out at about 400.”

    Not the 1,400 entries. A statistical distribution can have a long tail. It’s the “typical” datum that shocks me.

  9. Creating a marriage system with more of the controls on the front-end (prenuptial agreements, default (except in egregious cases) to 50/50 child custody, etc., would curtail a lot of this back-end, socially wasteful litigation…

    And more marriage counseling and a more matriachical society will not subsitute for the above. The very matriarchical Nordic countries have a high divorce rate, and marriage counseling, last time I checked can really only save roughly 1/5 marriages, an 80% failure rate…


    1. “Saving marriages” is not the purpose of marriage counseling. Not all marriages can or should be saved, and successful counselling can help the couple realize that.

  10. Keith:

    That is a good nuanced point regarding marriage counseling, though I think a lot of people think enter into such counseling that it can save a marriage.


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