How to Predict Divorce

I can predict whether a couple will divorce after watching and listening to them for just fifteen minutes.” John Gottman, Ph.D

If you had a crystal ball, would you have predicted divorce?

I sure wouldn’t have. No one ever gets married thinking they’re going to get divorced.

Are there tell-tale signs of divorce? According to John Gottman, professor psychology and researcher who has studied thousands of marriages, the answer is yes!

Thanks to years of scientific data and analysis in his laboratory in Washington observing and following up with real-life married couples, here’s what Dr. Gottman found.

It doesn’t take science for these concepts to make sense. Any one of us who’s been in a divorce can easily to recognize these very destructive behaviors we committed in our marriages which ultimately led to our divorce.

His analysis can be found in his New York Times bestselling book, The Seven Principles for Marking Marriage Work. Oh, and course, if you’re wondering what those 7 principles are, come back for next week’s post.

(And I don’t have to say this but if you would like to get all my posts and never miss a post, please put your name in the subscribe box in the sidebar of this page)

So what did studying thousands of marriages, couples and relationships show about divorce?

In listening to couples quarrel in the lab and fight as they are being studied, here are the signs that lead to divorce in relationships.

1. Starting off harshly. If your discussion starts harshly and filled with negativity, the discussion is going to end in a fight. “Statistics tell the story,” per Gottman, “96 percent of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes of the fifteen-minute interaction!” He’s not saying if you start negatively, you’re going to have a divorce but if you have enough negative conversations which end poorly, you’re going to find yourself divorcing down the road.

2. Criticism: Gottman points out there are differences between complaints and criticism. Complaints are when you’re not happy when your spouse did something and you express your feelings to her about what she did wrong. A criticism, however, takes it to another level by attacking the person’s character or personality. You don’t simply comment that you’re upset that your wife spends too much money but complains that she’s a spend-thrift who is out to bankrupt you. You don’t complain that the meal is not tasty (this is a dangerous complaint by the way) but you go on to say that she isn’t good at anything or she can’t even do the simplest of things in life!

3. Contempt: Contempt is when you feel superior to your partner and disrespect her. You cultivate contempt by building up a whole series of things that you’re unhappy with and then don’t talk about. Partners who are contemptuous take on the higher moral ground and question the other person’s ability, worth, skills or behavior. You build up disgust and anger towards each over a period of time. You lose respect for each and believe you’re no longer equals but better than the other person. Every mistake or error in the relationship allows you to become even more contemptuous and lash out at each other.

4. Defensiveness. Often times, when you’re defending yourself in an argument, you’re really blaming the other person. You take the position of an innocent victim and lay the blame at the feet of the other person. “Defensiveness in all its guises just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly,” Gottman observes. Defensiveness means you’re not accepting responsibility for your part of the interaction and instead shifting blame back on your spouse.

5. Stonewalling.  This was my favorite and I’m sure how most men handle conflict in marriages. In a regular conversation you pay attention and look at the person speaking. You listen, make up your mind, respond and go back and forth with each other. The stonewaller, however doesn’t participate in the conversation. “He tends to look away or down without uttering a sound,” Gottman writes, “He sits like an impassive stone wall…acts as though he couldn’t care less about what you’re saying, if he even hears it.” You feel that you can’t win no matter what and it would be easier to get through the hour by not being present or pretending not to listen. Stonewalling is not getting sucked into the drama you observe is going on.

6. Flooding. The reason men and sometimes, women, stonewall, is because they experience a feeling called flooding. “It occurs when your spouse’s negativity is so intense and sudden that it leaves you shell-shocked.” You try to avoid feeling flooding or flooded that you stonewall and keep the attacks at you at bay by not responding. One person is not able to handle the other person’s hostility, criticism, contempt, etc. If you feel flooded often, you’ll start distancing yourself emotionally which will ultimately lead to growing apart, feeling lonely and divorcing.

7. Failed Repair Attempts. Repair attempts are efforts couples make to reduce the tension of a situation, take a break from an argument or put the brakes on where a conversation is going. It’s humor, or changing subjects or taking the heat of any given situation. When couples don’t repair the above common practices, tension and resentment continues to build up. When couples are criticizing and being contemptuous, there is little room for repair, making flooding more pronounced and leading to one or both spouses withdrawing.

Even if a marriage has all of the other faults above but the couples can repair arguments and the behaviors above successfully, the marriage remains successful in the long run. When there were no repair attempts or when the repairs were drowned out, marriages eventually ended.

These signs of what lead to the destruction of a marriage may be sad and depressing. It may trigger memories for you of all the behavior you both exhibited in your marriage.

How do you actually make marriage work? You can wait for my post next week on the 7 principles of making marriage work or you can pick up The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work here.

Photo credit Jennifer Regnier