How To Predict Divorce

This blog post is part of my running series on marriage, based on the research and writing of Dr. John Gottman's famous book, Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work. I often recommend this book to any of my clients interested in improving their relationship, married or not. In couples therapy, I teach the skills in this book to help partners with the many difficulties related to conflict styles, communication, and strategies for healing wounds and creating happy, sustainable long-term romantic relationships. 

The Research

When Dr. Gottman studied couples in his experimental ‘Love Lab’, he asked them to argue and resolve a conflict. Then he followed them for decades, and was able to isolate the factors that contributed to which couples divorced. His findings showed the critical importance of conflict in predicting divorce.

What matters isn't if you argue as much as how you argue that makes the difference in your relationship. What he found were signs of possible relational problems/divorce that allowed him to predict divorce with up to 91% accuracy. The "signs" of impending divorce are also the very behaviors that I target in marriage therapy in order to help a couple salvage their relationship if they're headed to the brink of divorce. 

The Warning Signs of Divorce

#1 Harsh Startups

How you start up a difficult discussion with your partner--especially emotional or sensitive topics--is critically important to what happens next. Harsh startups are those kinds of conversations that start out badly, right out of the gate.

  • "The trouble with you is ..."
  • "Wow, that's just great. Thanks a lot."
  • "Why still haven't done the dishes...!?"
  • "My problem with you is that you never ...."

Notice the accusing and hostile tone of these words. It's critical or sarcastic, and reveals your feelings of contempt towards your partner. You are acting as if you're completely right and they're completely wrong. You're better than them. It's a quick way to make your partner defensive and get nowhere fast.

#2 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

These are the four behaviors that are always toxic to a relationship, which I have discussed in more detail in a previous blog post. I've also added an additional fifth behavior that is just as problematic and leads to divorce.

  1. Criticism – you attack your partner's character--who they are as a person--instead of making a specific complaint (something your partner did or a situation). It's always better to complain about something specific, sending the message "I didn't like what you did that one time" rather than critically attacking who they are as a person, which sends the message “something is really wrong with you”. Complaints give your partner a way to fix things and make a better relationship. Criticisms push your relationship closer towards divorce.
  2. Contempt: When you're being sarcastic and cynical, you are showing contempt towards your partner. It's a sure-fire way to lead your relationship towards divorce! It's so bad that if you act this way regularly, research has shown that even your immune system suffers enough to make you more prone to sickness! Contempt includes things like rolling eyes, looking at your partner with disgust, sneering, mockery and using hostile humor. Contempt is the worst of all four horsemen, and is the biggest warning sign of future divorce. Sometimes, contempt is when you act like you are taking the higher “moral” ground, insinuating that you are better than your partner. When you allow long-standing negative thoughts about your partner to go unchecked in your mind, you inevitably create feelings of contempt towards them.
  3. Defensiveness: Carrying around a defensive chip on your shoulder is another way to bring about divorce. Maybe you show defensiveness by immediately explaining or defending yourself when your partner says anything remotely critical or complaining. You may act as though you're expecting an attack, even if that's not your partner's intent. You're on edge and ready for a counter-attack. When you're being defensive, you tend to be sending the message of righteousness, without blame, such as “it’s not me, it is you”. 
  4. Stonewalling: This is when you tune out, ice your partner out, or shut down. It usually happens after one of the other horsemen rears their ugly heads, and you get overwhelmed. Maybe you stop listening, stop making eye contact, or stop responding. Or maybe you only respond with "yes" or "no". It's about sending your partner the message, “I don't care”. 85% of the time, the partner doing the stonewalling is the husband, and we think it's for evolutionary reasons. Women tend to be able to physiologically calm down faster, but of course this is not always the case.
  5. Belligerence. This is similar to contempt, but it has such a particularly nastiness to it that it's worth mentioning separately. It's not one of the original "Four Horsemen", but Dr. Gottman considers it to be an honorary horseman and sign of divorce because it is so harmful to relationships. Belligerence is when you express your anger in an aggressive, threatening way. For example, you're acting belligerent when you say something like, "Maybe I should just leave you so that you won't have someone to blame all the time."

#3 Flooding

This is when you feel defenseless or shell-shocked, usually after hearing a bunch of criticisms, contempt or defensiveness. When you're feeling flooded, you get hyper-aware, on edge, and expect that your partner is “just about to attack me again”.

If you tend to stonewall, it's usually because you're trying to protect yourself against the feeling of being "flooded" with overwhelming emotions. When you get stuck in this state of mind, you're physiologically in a state of “fight-or-flight” body feels in danger. Getting occasionally flooding can be handled in a healthy relationship, but if you get flooded on a regular basis, your marriage can become in danger. 

When you're feeling flooded, undergoing the physiological changes that happen in a hyper-aware state (i.e. endocrine, heart-rate) can predict divorce for two reasons: 1) distress when dealing with the other; 2) hard to have a productive problem-solving discussion when distressed.

#4 Failed Attempts To Repair Issues

Healthy relationships require that you regularly repair misunderstandings and hurt feelings. When you do it well, you lower stress levels and conflict, and feel closer to one another. But when you repeatedly fail at repair attempts, you start to feel defeated, like nothing you try even works.

When the four horsemen take over your communication patterns, then you and your partner stop even noticing each others' repair attempts. It becomes a nasty feedback loop in which the “four horsemen” keep happening, then more flooding happens, and then repair attempts are ignored, until eventually you or your partner withdraws.

Positive sentiment override predicts the success of repair attempts. Four horsemen predict divorce by 82%. Add in the failed-repair attempts, and prediction percentage runs in the 90s. On the other hand, having the four horsemen, but with successful repair attempts, a stable relationship is likely. But when four horsemen moved in for good, repair attempts are incredibly hard to attempt, accept or even notice.

#5 Bad Memories

When past is re-written in a negative hue, divorce chances royally go up. For example, you gain strength or negativity from the adversity that you got through together. What matters most is how people frame the situation, which can lead to more negativity or positivity, etc.

When a couple has negatively "re-written" their relationship, they are nearing the end stage of their marriage. They may talk calmly about their conflict, or appear like they are doing somewhat well. They have already begun to emotionally divorce from one another. 

It's important to note that such relationships can still be salvaged, however. They will not only need to address their communication problems (i.e. harsh startups, the four horsemen issues) learn effective repairs; they will also need to improve their closeness and the quality of their friendship. This means improving things when they're not fighting., so that they'll even feel motivated to salvage the relationship and want to work for it.

The Final Stages Before Divorce:

  1. You believe that all the problems in your marriage are "severe"
  2. You feel that things over seems useless, so you decide to solve problems on your own, usually without your partner, and usually moving more and more away from your partner
  3. You start leading parallel lives (like "roommates")
  4. You start feeling lonely all the time (this puts you at a higher risk for infidelity, too)

If you recognize that your relationship has some of these warning signs, it means that divorce is likely if you don't get help. Gottman method marriage counseling has a proven track record for helping two willing partners. Counseling can help you get off the path towards relationship destruction, and back on track towards rebuilding your relationship into a fulfilling, stable, happy one.

If you're on the brink of divorce or separation, consider trying "Discernment Counseling". It's about deciding whether or not your relationship is "fixable" and whether or not you even want to invest in making it work. 

If you decide to start couples therapy, know that it's not about just learning negotiating skills or conflict resolution. If that's all you learn in your couples therapy sessions, your relationships isn't going to prevent divorce. You have to take it a step further and learn about what you can do when you're not arguing, by fostering a better friendship. That's when the "Seven Principles" come into play.


Stephanie Cook

Stephanie Cook, LCSW, is an Atlanta area therapist and owner of a private psychotherapy practice, Counseling ATL, LLC, located in Decatur, an in-town suburb of Atlanta, GA. She has expertise providing counseling to individuals, couples, and families and primarily specializes in work with young adults and couples