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  • Writer's pictureJesse Thornton

Why Couples Divorce: Six Predictors

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

When I was young, I was petrified of divorce.  I feared my spouse leaving me and being separated from my children.  Most of all, I feared being alone.  I wanted to do everything in my power to prevent this from happening to me, but I didn’t have the faintest idea how to do this.  Fortunately, I recognized that I didn’t know what I was doing, so I put off marriage until my 30s.  Also fortunately, I learned a lot about marriage through my 20s.

John Gottman is the most important person I came across when it comes to learning about marriage and divorce.  He is a psychologist and the only person to observe marriages scientifically before making theories about what makes them work.  Spending more than a decade observing thousands of marriages, he separated and analyzed  successful marriages and marriages that ended in divorce.  And he wrote a book about it.  He discovered that he can predict divorce with 91% accuracy by observing specific behaviors when the couple argues.  Here is what he found:

1) Harsh Startup:

Success or failure begins with the first sentence of every argument in a marriage.  Harsh startups get harsh endings.  Coming at someone critically or accusatory does not work very well.  In fact 96% of the time, if a couple keeps an argument harsh for three minutes, it will not be resolved.  So lesson one: begin your argument carefully.

2) The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (or silence).  These four negative behaviors happen in all relationships to some degree.  It is when they are frequent and rampant that they become an issue.  The rule of thumb here is avoid these behaviors to the best of your ability.  Personally, I try to apologize every time I realize I engage in one of these behaviors.  Whatever you do, make sure to be careful around these horses.  They will destroy your marriage.

3) Flooding:

This happens when a person “loses it’ and goes into a tirade or attacks their spouse relentlessly.  Often it leads to stonewalling by the other spouse.  Prolonged lectures, hostility, or other forms of intense negative communication falls into this category.  In order to protect a relationship, spouses must control the amount and intensity of negative emotion they express to each other in arguments.

4) Body Language (Panic):

Gottman is talking about sympathetic nervous arousal here.  When being flooded or when the horsemen come trotting around, heart rate increases, and other panic symptoms begin to surface.  With this much arousal it is hard to pay attention to the conversation, and it increases our chances of attacking or fleeing by using the four horsemen.  Spouses that are experiencing panic symptoms need some time to cool down and approach the argument again.  A little reassurance and support can also quickly deescalate these feelings.

5) Failed Repair Attempts:

Spouses are often making bids for repair during arguments.  When the previous four points happen too frequently, repair attempts are less likely to succeed.  Repair will resolve an argument.  This is done by validating and making changes for one’s spouse.  When bids are frequently overlooked and spouses fail to reach repair, they are left feeling misunderstood and alone.  The marriage is also more vulnerable as a result.

6) Bad Memories:

With enough of the previous five happening in marriages over time, spouses begin to rewrite their history.  The story changes from a loving courtship to two strangers coming together for convenience.  When spouses tell the story of their history together and describe less about love and more about logical factors, it becomes apparent that the history has been spent.  This is the final predictor of a marriage that is headed for divorce.

Gottman writes extensively about creating successful marriages in his seminal book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.  I highly recommend this book to everybody who marries.  For those having difficulty in marriage, I also recommend seeing a marriage counselor.  The research clearly shows that addressing problems early in a marriage is much more successful than waiting and allowing the problems to grow unmanageable.

For information about couples counseling.

For more reading on marriages consider reading on Resolving Conflict

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