The Biggest Predictors of Divorce

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone would go ahead and just figure this whole relationship thing out already? And then teach us?

Well, they have. Drs. John and Julie Gottman are among the most respected marriage therapist researchers out there. They have obsessed, analyzed and dissected relationships to uncover the mystery of why some relationships survive and others don’t.

They have figured out the biggest predictors of divorce.  And, you may very well be doing some of these things in your own relationship. It doesn’t mean your relationship is headed for divorce, but I think knowing these four things (Gottman calls them the Four Horsemen) is a great alarm system. If they are a part, big or small, of your relationship, there should be red flags going up as you read this. They should be behaviors that you start to pay attention to and not just assume they’re okay and normal. Sure we all do these at times in our relationships, but when they become a staple feature of your relationship dynamics, there is valid reason to worry and correct.  

There are four behaviors that predict divorce:

  1.  Criticism

We all criticize at times.  But I will be honest, in my office there is usually one partner that feels that they are criticized all the time by their spouse. They start to feel that nothing they do is right in the eyes of their partner. If your critical words were said by someone else, say a cashier at Target, your spouse would probably not react so strongly. But because they are said by YOU, the one person in this world they want to see them as good, they carry a whole different level of sting.

Examples of criticism:

“That is not how you change a diaper, let me do it!”

“I’ve asked you a thousand times to do this and you never do!”

If you need help in learning a more effective way to get your needs met, without criticizing your partner, read my previous post Asking For Change Without Blame.

  1. Contempt

This is my least favorite. It’s the hardest to overcome in therapy. It squashes relationships.  Simply stated, contempt is looking down on your partner. It’s a belief or attitude that “I’m good and you are not.”  Or “I’m better than you.” It’s looking at your spouse like “you are the one with the problems, not me.”

Newsflash:  You and your partner are equally matched. You are no “better than” and your partner is not “beneath you.” You are equally functional and dysfunctional, give or take. Your dysfunction may show up very differently, but often, it is no better or worse than your partner’s.  

Examples of contempt:

“I can’t believe you did that…what is wrong with you?”

Any insult, name-calling, sarcastic jabs or mocking your partner.  

“I only act like this because of you.”

FYI, if you can identify contempt in your relationship, intervention is likely needed.

  1.  Stonewalling

Stonewalling can be super common. Stonewalling is refusing to talk to your partner about conflict. A lot of times, partners stonewall (go silent, withdraw to another room, leave) because they do not know what else to do. Stonewalling can be extremely hurtful to the relationship if it is persistent and if the issues are never revisited in a productive way.

Popular reasons to stonewall are:

  • Feeling overwhelmed.
  • Feeling hopeless (that if they engage in the conversation, it will make things worse, so they stonewall).  
  • Feeling helpless (they don’t know what to do or say to make things better).

While stonewalling is damaging, I find it the easiest to help people with. It can be as basic as letting your partner know you need to take a break. Or letting your partner know you are worried about saying or doing the wrong thing that would make things worse…because the last thing they want is to make things worse.  

  1.  Defensiveness

We are all defensive at times. If you are being criticized, you are probably going to react defensively. If you believe you have upset your partner, you are naturally going to try to defend your actions…of course you do not want your partner to be upset with you.

Example of defensiveness:

“Did you forget to pick up milk on your way home?” “Did you get done everything you should have today? The house is a mess, you sure are one to talk.”

When every comment is met with defensiveness, couples stop talking. I find that partners need a lot of help and practice with responding without defensiveness. It is natural to defend yourself.  It can require intentionality to learn to do it differently…but it can be done.

ADD Version:

  • The biggest predictors of divorce are what John Gottman calls the Four Horsemen.
  • They are criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness.
  • When they become staple features in your relationship, you should be concerned.
  • They are correctable behaviors!

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