7 min read

Biggest Predictors of Divorce

Dr. Gottman could predict with 90% accuracy which couple would divorce and which stay together. He came up with the 'Four Horsemen' of divorce: 1. Contempt 2. Criticism 3. Defensiveness 4. Stonewalling
Man and woman sittting on marriage therapist couch playing with their wedding rings
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How Unhealthy Communication Styles Contribute to Divorce Rates

Right after I got engaged to my now-husband, I began having an anxious spiral over the idea of possible future divorce. My relationship was better than ever but marriage was a scary new chapter in my life. I began to intensively research divorce and its predictors. 50% of first-time marriages end in divorce. For second and third marriages, the rates of divorce are significantly higher. I didn't like those odds. Like any overachiever, I was determined to not fail, i.e. not get divorced.

Here is what I found.

Top Given Reasons for Divorce

According to the National Library of Medicine, below are the top reasons given for divorce.

- Lack of Commitment 75%

- Infidelity or Extramarital Affairs 60%

- Too much Conflict and Arguing 58%

- Getting Married Too Young 45%

- Financial Problems 37%

- Substance Abuse 35%

- Domestic Violence 24%

- Lack of Support from Family 18%

- Health Problems 17%

- Religious Difference 13%

- Little or no Premarital Education 13%

What are the biggest predictors of divorce?

Dr. John Gottman's extensive research came up with the 'Four Horsemen' of predictors of divorce. The Four Horsemen predict early divorce that occurs in the first six years of marriage. Half of all marriages that end do so in the first seven years. Dr. Gottman could predict with 90% accuracy which couple would divorce and which stay together.

His 'Four Horsemen' of Divorce are:
1. Contempt

Contempt is the "feeling that a person or thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn." The presence of contempt is one of the most corrosive behaviors in relationships. It is the number one predictor of divorce. The person who feels contempt for the other does not value their partner. They feel 'above' their partner, disregarding their partner's thoughts and opinions.

It involves the dismissal of the opinions of their partner, eye-rolling, sarcasm, disdain, disrespect, and name-calling. Criticism attacks the partner's self-esteem and their sense of self. It is a form of emotional abuse and manipulation. It can lead to their partner feeling unworthy and unloved.

Example: You learn a fun fact at work and you excitedly share it with your partner. Their eyes don't leave their phone and they roll their eyes once you're done. "How did you not know that already?" Disdain drips from their words. Your partner mutters under their breath, "Stupid."

Contempt builds resentment in both partners. Both partners will feel an emotional disconnect and pull away from the other.  

2. Criticism

Criticism involves the "expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes." There is a difference between a complaint and criticism. A complaint focuses on a specific issue. Criticizing involves equating what the partner did (the behavior) with a personal flaw or personality trait.
Over-criticizing and micromanaging will make partners feel like they have to walk on eggshells. Partners feel like they can never do anything right.
Example: "You always leave your dirty dishes in the sink. You never care about anyone but yourself."

While it may be true that your partner does things that are inconsiderate, there are way to effectively communicate them. Using criticism feels like a personal attack and shuts down the communication.

3. Defensiveness

Defensiveness is "the quality of being anxious to challenge or avoid criticism." It is an unhealthy communication style that is usually tied to criticism. One partner criticizes, and the other becomes defensive. Often, partners may switch their roles in this dynamic, but it plays the same way. Defensiveness can occur in direct retaliation of criticism or perceived criticism.

When partners have unhealthy communication styles, it sets an atmosphere of tension. Even the most benign comments are received like criticisms. One or both partners are on edge, waiting for the next attack.

There are different ways of defensive responding:

  • Victim Mentality: "You always pick a fight with me!"
  • Over-explaining: "I was going to do the dishes, but I had to pick up the children from school and I got a phone call right as I was about to do it."
  • Counter-Criticize: "Well, you never do the laundry or make dinner!"

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is a "persistent refusal to communicate or to express emotions." People who have avoidant attachment types generally use this communication style in arguments. They avoid uncomfortable conversations or dealing with unwanted emotions.

Stonewalling includes refusing to talk about issues, not giving any nonverbal cues,  and "shutting down." It can include walking out during conflict, without warning or explanation. Stonewalling makes partners feel extreme frustration, not listened to, and ignored.

There is a difference between Stonewalling and needing a cool-down period. Some people may need some time to 'cool down' in an argument. They may need time to reflect on and understanding their own thoughts and feelings. Cooling down can be an effective strategy for conflicts. The key element with cooling down is the communication that occurs with it. "I need a moment to collect myself and we can discuss it tonight." Effective communication stating the boundaries and ensures that the issue gets dealt with.

Example of Stonewalling: Your partner left their dishes in the sink, again. Frustrated, you bring up the issue calmly: "I noticed the dirty dishes in the sink. I feel like I try to respect our shared space by cleaning up my dishes immediately. When you leave dirty dishes in the sink overnight, it feels like you don't care about my time and effort." As you are sharing your thoughts, your partner is still scrolling on their phone. They don't look at you, they don't give any signs they are even listening. You feel a build-up of frustration that you are being ignored. "Can you at least look at me when I'm talking to you?" Your voice raises. Your partner sighs, "I can't do this now," and leaves. You know your partner will never initiate the conversation about the dishes.

Dr John Gottman noted another predictor of divorce: Turning towards vs Turning Away.

Turning Towards v.s. Turning Away

In any relationship (including platonic and familial relationships) there are bids for attention. These are attempts to gain attention, affirmation, affection, or any positive affection. Bids for attention are ways of reaching out to your partner and connecting with them. On average, couples that remained married responded positively to bids for attention 86% of the time. Couples that divorced only averaged 33%.
Turning towards your partner means picking up and responding to those bids for attention positively. This means actively listening to your partner, helping them, or giving solicited advice. Turning away from your partner means you either ignore the bid completely or respond negatively.

Bids for attention can range from minor to more major:

1. Pay attention to what I say: "Look at that cool butterfly."

2. Respond to a simple request: "Can you get me a glass of water while you're up?"

3. Help or work with me: "Let's make burritos for dinner together."

4. Show interest or active excitement in accomplishments: "Did you like my new cookie recipe?"

5. Answer questions or requests for information: "What do you think about AI being used to create art?"

6. Talk with me: "Can I tell you about what happened at the supermarket?"

7. Share the events of your day: "What have you been working on this morning?"

8. Respond to my joke: "Have you heard this one? Knock knock..."

9. Help me de-stress: "Work was awful today."

10. Help me problem solve: "I have a dilemma at work... What should I do?"

11. Be affectionate: "Let's cuddle."

12. Play with me: "Want to play 'Valheim' together?"

13. Join me in an adventure: "Do you want to go to the beach and go snorkeling this weekend?"

14. Join me in learning something: "Let's take Spanish lessons together."

For later divorce (divorce that occurs approximately between 6-17 years after the wedding), he noted these predictors:

1. Emotional Withdrawal: Pulling away emotionally from your partner. Not sharing your emotions, thoughts, and feelings.

2. Absence of Positive Affect during Conflict Discussion: not displaying shared humor, affection, or empathy during conflict.

How to Avoid Divorce and Repair the Marriage

So you've noticed some predictors of divorce in your own marriage. This does not mean it inevitably doomed you to divorce. However, it means you need to take serious steps towards repairing the relationship. Saving a damaged relationship requires both partners to commit to change.

1. Recognize your role: Understand your own unhealthy behaviors that are contributing to the breakdown in the relationship. Am I defensive during arguments? Do I ignore my partners' bids for attention?

2. Learn how to deal with conflict: Use 'I' statements rather than "You did this." Avoid criticizing by talking about your feelings. "I feel frustrated when I see dirty dishes in the sink after a long day at work." Don't turn a behavior into a personality trait for your partner (You are so lazy, you never clean the dishes).

3. Build a culture of appreciation: Focus on your partner's positive qualities and traits. Express gratitude often, "Thank you for making dinner."

4. Physiological self-soothing: learn how to manage negative emotions. If you need a break during a conflict, communicate it clearly. "I need a break right now. Can we discuss this after dinner?"

5. Turn Towards your partner: recognize their bids for attention and acknowledge them. Send out your own little bids for connection. Actively listen during talks and give your full attention. Be excited and celebrate with your partner.

Recently, I celebrated my five-year wedding anniversary. The anxiety that plagued me about divorce is no longer there. My views on divorce have shifted. I no longer view divorce as failing. Instead, I see it as a different resolution. I don't want to stay married for the sake of 'being married.' Being married does not mean being happy. I want to be chosen each day. I want to choose my partner each day. We both have to commit to this relationship and do what it takes to keep healthy communication.

My research into divorce gave me the tools I needed to spot breakdowns in communication. It provided me with actionable ways of improving communication styles. It highlighted the importance of positively responding to bids to connection. These tools aren't a onetime fix. Healthy communication requires careful maintenance and attention. The grass is greener where you water it.