What Behaviors Predict Divorce?

Dr. John Schinnerer


The best kept secret to a happy, fulfilling relationship is all about how well you deal with disagreement – what you do when you get upset with your significant other (SO).

It’s easier to fall in love than stay in love. Roughly half of the couples who are married in the U.S. will end up in divorce. Part of the reason for this is that the intensity with which you love your SO has little to do with how long your relationship will last. What does predict how long your relationship will survive? How well you discuss your differences.
Researchers can accurately tell if a couple will get divorced by watching them talk about their differences for five minutes. With this tiny little piece of information, researcher, Dr. John Gottman, can correctly predict (93% of the time) which relationships will last and which will fizzle out. Now there are very few things in the social sciences that can be predicted with 93% accuracy. So you need to sit up and take notice because this is incredibly powerful info.

Which Behaviors Predict Divorce?

What does Dr. Gottman look for in order to predict divorce with such unerring accuracy? Dr. Gottman looks for “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” which include:

Criticism: Airing your complaints about your SO as a defect in their personality. For example, labeling your SO with a blanket trait based on individual behaviors.  Example: The wife wants her SO to fix a long-leaking sink and says, “You never do anything around the house. Why don’t you fix the sink like you said you would a week ago.” The husband responds by getting annoyed and counter-attacking with comments like, “You always criticize me! You don’t appreciate anything I do for this family!” This style of dealing with difficult subjects often leads to a refusal to do the task in question or the task gets done beneath a thick layer of anger and resentment.

Contempt: Contempt is a combination of anger with disgust. Contemptuous statements reveal that one person in the relationship feels superior to their SO.  This emotion is the strongest single predictor of divorce. Watch for it in yourself. Listen to your tone of voice. Watch your words. Example: “You’re a fool.”

Danville CA Divorce support group for men

Defensiveness: This is a form of self-protection in which the inidividual refuses to take any of the blame. A perceived attack is met with an indignant response or by playing the role of the innocent victim. Defensiveness is a corrosive way to deflect an attack or criticism because the root issue rarely gets addressed.  Example:  “It’s not my fault that we went over budget this month; you need to earn more money. If you earned more money, I wouldn’t have to watch what I spend.”

Stonewalling:  This is complete emotional shutdown, thereby ending the conversation. Example:  The stonewalling partner angrily refuses to speak or actively listen to their SO. They turn away from the SO or leave the room and refuse to continue.

But I Want to Be Happily Married!

On the other hand, if you want to stay happily married, find healthier, more effective ways to communicate. Here are 15 things to do when you sense yourself getting angry with your SO.

Things to Do When You Get Annoyed with Your SO

Use “I” Statements 

When you’re annoyed with your SO, begin the conversation at a low level of intensity. Don’t begin with an attack. Instead use an “I” statements. Start by explaining how you feel and why you feel that way. Follow it up with what you would like your SO to do. For example,  “I’m frustrated by all I have to do. The house is a disaster and the Johnsons are coming over tonight. I need your help picking up the living room.” This skill takes some practice. However, the results are far more productive.

Stay Calm While Listening

When your SO tells you what’s wrong, stay calm. In your head, coach yourself with de-escalating statements like … “take a deep breath,” “relax,” “I can handle this,” and other helpful phrases.  Be aware of the automatic urge to attack in response to a perceived criticism. Instead, ask your SO to be specific about what he or she wants, “What can I do to help?”

Be Silent

When getting upset, close your mouth. The single best thing you can do when you’re angry is wait until later to speak. Why? It buys you time to calm down and thus, to think more clearly. When you are angry, you are far more likely to say something that you later regret. Learn the art of silence. It is powerful. There is a difference between learning constructive silence and stonewalling. Constructive silence means buying yourself time to calm yourself, remain in the conversation and ultimately, speak your truth. Stonewalling is an angry and unilateral end to the conversation.

Remove Yourself From the Situation

Think of your anger on a ten point scale where 1 is calm and 10 is enraged. If your anger goes above a 5, take a time out. Walk away. Have a rule in your house that anyone can take a time out whenever things get too heated. Agree to come back to the issue later when things have calmed down. It’s always helpful to have a time out rule where anyone can take a break from a disagreement because they are too angry or emotional to continue. Nothing gets resolved if one or both of you are angry. First, reduce any anger, then address the situation. Have an agreement with your SO that if a conversation gets too intense, both of you have permission to take a break with the understanding that you will come back to the conversation shortly to come to an understanding. 

Look Away

Staring at another person when they are angry increases their irritation. Look away. Look at your shoes, the ceiling, the sky or a picture. Give the other person a minute to recompose him- or herself. Keep them in your peripheral vision.  Just don’t look directly at them.

Tap Into Curiosity

Curiosity is a byproduct of empathy, a hallmark of emotional intelligence. The more you care about others, the more curious you are about what drives them and why they feel the way they do. When your SO is getting annoyed, get curious. What are they getting annoyed by? Is there something else underlying their irritation? Hurt perhaps? Hurt over what? Instead of getting defensive, practice staying open and asking questions to get at the emotion underlying their anger.

To recap, there are four destructive behaviors that you want to be aware of for a healthy relationship. These include contempt, criticism, stonewalling, and defensiveness. Rather than get locked in anger with your SO, experiment with shifting your attitude towards one of curiosity, taking a brief time out to cool down, looking away, practicing silence until you can speak from a centered place, using I statements and coaching yourself to stay calm.

Graphic By SunnyChow (http://zh.uncyclopedia.info/wiki/圖像:維基子的怒火.png) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Best Ways to Deal with Anger and Sadness in Separation and Divorce

Dr. John Schinnerer


A few years ago, I went through a difficult and contentious divorce. It did not need to be that way. Things could have been rational, reasonable, honest and quick. It could have been done at a minimal cost.  So what got in the way? Anger and entitlement.

How do you get through the intense emotions, such as anger, rage, sadness and hurt, that often accompany a separation and divorce? How do you deal with the negative thoughts? How do you move forward with kindness and compassion? Here are the top tips to part ways with your spouse while holding onto your dignity, your financial savings and your calm.

How do I deal with my anger during divorce
Anger in your divorce can work against you

Understand How Anger Works

In general, emotions tell us whether or not our needs are being met. When our needs are not being met, it’s easy to become angry, scared, hurt or sad. For many men, anger is the dominant emotion felt. It’s often easier to default to anger than cop to what you are truly feeling. In my experience, hurt is what most often underlies my anger. Sometimes you are aware of what is underlying anger. Sometimes you aren’t. Identifying the emotion underneath anger is often the best way to mitigate anger. Once you’ve identified what’s below your anger, the next step is to share it. For instance, instead of saying, “I’m furious you left me,” you might say “it hurts me that you are leaving.” This simple shift dramatically alters the dynamics of the conversation.  Anger from men is often viewed by others with fear and trepidation. The more you can shift to the level below anger, the more receptive to you others will be.

Know What You Control

Managing anger during divorce frequently revolves around being aware of what you truly control.  You will feel better to the extent that you can control the environment around you. To help alleviate feelings of helplessness, create a plan for you and your children. Come to an agreement with your spouse as to a temporary child custody schedule. If possible, look for 50-50 sharing of the children. Odds are, whatever you put in to a temporary custody schedule will be turned into a permanent one.  As soon as you have agreement on a schedule, let your children know what to expect as it gives them a greater sense of control.

One of the biggest triggers for anger in divorce I see is when a coparent finds out about something going on at the other parent’s home with which they don’t agree. This might be something like allowing video games all week long, poor meal choices, or introducing a girlfriend/boyfriend after dating for only a month. Look at these instances as lessons in what you truly control. And you only truly control one thing — yourself.  You control your thoughts, your feelings, your actions. You no longer have any control over what goes on at your coparent’s house. You can talk to them, suggest things, and ask questions. If things get really bad (e.g., domestic violence, drug and alcohol use, neglect, etc.), you can address it with the courts, child services or with a mediator. Unless your children are in danger, you really have little to no say. This is a difficult pill to swallow for many. Keep reminding yourself that you only control one thing — yourself.  You control your thoughts, your feelings, your actions.

Distract Yourself with Pleasant Activities

One of the keys to managing your emotions is to distract yourself. Do things that are fun for you — exercising, reading, watch a comedy, go for a walk, enjoy nature, get a massage, learn to meditate, hang out with friends or play with your kids.

When you notice your thoughts returning to the divorce, gently redirect them to a memory of when you were happy and safe. I recommend to my clients to take mental snapshots of times when they are happy such as when they are playing in the back yard running through the sprinkler with their children or a tropical vacation. Then you can return to these mental pictures during stressful times.

Breathe Deeply

Another key is to breathe deeply. Breathe into your abdomen or stomach area, not your chest. Focus on exhaling out ALL of the air in your lungs with each breath and filling your lungs completely with each inhale.  When you want to really relax, focus on breathing out slightly longer than you breathe in. For example, breathe in for four-seconds, hold it for a second, and breathe out for 8-seconds (and repeat!). Breathing out longer than you breathe in activates the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for the relaxation response.

How to deal with anger in divorce
Breathing to Reduce Anger

Start Journaling

Another key to managing anger during divorce, and one which is proven by research, is to journal. Studies have shown that journaling helps reduce intrusive thoughts, which are negative thoughts that come into your head unwanted.  And let’s face it, separation and divorce lend themselves to numerous intrusive thoughts. Journaling helps to get rid of these which will improve your mood. The other benefit is that, by noting things down in a journal, you can go back and have a written accounting of events of the day which may serve you well in the unfortunate event you have to litigate the divorce.

Get Back to the Gym

Keep your physical body in good shape in general to provide you with maximum energy and minimal anger. Staying in good physical shape gives you a greater sense of control of the environment around you. As we discussed earlier, a lot of the emotions that come up in divorce, arise due to a feeling of things being out of control. Having greater physical strength, greater flexibility, and more stamina all contribute to you having an increased sense of control over external events.

What’s more, you will want to begin to redefine your body in preparation of dating again (at some point!). This is what’s known as the post-divorce body where men hit the gym and reap the benefits of lifting weights to look their best.  You will thank me for this later, trust me.

Also, for highly challenging events, such as a difficult divorce, try activities that are relaxing such as yoga, meditation, walking, or stretching.  Soothing activities are helpful as well such as a shower or a warm bath.

If you are angry or furious, any hearty physical activity such as jogging or swimming is a great way to work off strong negative emotions.  I find that lifting weights is most helpful for dealing with anger and frustration. While aerobic activity is best for anxiety and stress.

Watch Out for Depression

It is very common to feel depressed when in the midst of separation and divorce. Most men experience some symptoms of depression during divorce. Be aware of hiding away in your man cave,  isolating yourself and refusing friends’ requests to go out. Watch out for an increase in your alcohol consumption. You may also see a spike in your level of irritability (which is often how depression shows itself in men). In general, indicators of depression include changes in sleep habits — either too much or not enough, change in eating habits, significant weight gain or loss — more than approximately 5% body weight in a month, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, withdrawal from family and friends, family history of depression and/or anxiety, giving away valued items, complete lack of emotion, irritability, sadness, apathy (i.e., “I don’t care.”) fatigue, diminished ability to think or concentrate, and/or recurring thoughts of death and dying.  If you recognize signs of depression, seek out professional help such as a divorce support group, clergy, rabbi or mental health counselor.

Find the Positive Meaning in the Pain

One of the best ways to deal with divorce is to figure out the lessons you are intended to learn from it. I challenge you to find your own personal positive meaning in your divorce. What does it represent to you? A call to action? A reminder to get in better shape? A motivation to learn to manage your thoughts and feelings? A second chance? An opportunity to do things right this time? What do you need to learn to ensure that your next relationship is happy and successful? One of the best ways we learn is through making mistakes. You are not a failure. Your marriage failed. Big difference.

What Are You Going To LEARN From Divorce? 

Don’t sit by and passively watch your divorce go by and simply feel sorry for yourself (although you may need some time to do so). Use this as a clarion call to improve yourself and the world around you. As Gandhi said, “You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.” That means you start with one individual — you. And you start changing you by changing what is on the inside.

The main reason for your sadness is to help you adjust to the death of your relationship. Sadness allows time to grieve, look inward at who you are and what you are doing with your life, and understand the meaning of the loss.  One of the most important things is to figure out the meaning of the loss. The particular meaning you assign to the loss matters less than merely coming up with a meaning, any meaning, for the loss. You are happier to the extent that you find a positive meaning in past events and relationships.

Just like anger builds upon itself, sadness builds upon sadness. So if your first sad thought is followed by more sad thoughts, you risk a downward spiral.

All emotion is meant to be temporary. Anger is not permanent.  Sadness is not permanent. They are merely passing by. You are better off to the extent that you can learn to identify them and release them through  activities such as deep breathing, exercise or journaling.

Remember The Snowball Analogy 

Imagine a snowball rolling down a large snow-covered mountain. At first, the snowball is the size of your fist, something you could easily pick up and control. However, as the snowball rolls down the hill, it picks up speed and grows exponentially. After a few yards, the snowball has increased in size to the point where you can no longer handle it by yourself. Given the right conditions, the snowball can grow to mammoth size and could cause damage to other people.

The snowball is exactly the same as your feelings. For instance, anger usually starts out small and manageable. However, if you are not paying attention, anger quickly grows and becomes uncontrollable. In fact you only have about ½ a second to interrupt the anger process. However, it’s doable. You can do it. I’ll tell you how. Keep in mind that I am talking about the speed of thought. So you actually have time to insert 2-3 thoughts in that 1/2 a second timeframe. It’s more time than you think!

The most important thing in controlling negative emotions, such as anger, is nipping them in the bud. You have to tune in to your body’s cues. Your body will tell you when you are beginning to get angry, for instance. Blood rushes to your fists, your face may get red, your muscles tense, breathing becomes shallow, your jaw clenches, your eyebrows furrow and so on. We need to begin to tune in to these cues. You only have a split second in which you can interrupt the cycle of anger. Otherwise the anger builds upon itself and spirals out of control. So the first tip is to become more aware of your bodily cues. Every emotion has cues which reveal how we are feeling. Fear triggers blood flowing to the arms and legs, perspiration, raised eyebrows, and a constriction of the throat. Sadness is marked primarily by a drop in energy, tears welling up, and the longing for that which is gone. The trick is to tune into these cues quickly and interrupt the cycle.

The second tip is to understand that negative emotions are created in large part by your interpretation of the situation around you. So you can learn to change your interpretation of the world around you. Here’s one way to do this. In stressful situations, ask yourself, “Will this matter ten years from now?” In most cases the answer is no, it won’t. If the answer is “Yes,” then ask yourself, “what can I do to help find a constructive solution to the problem?” Practice these skills and you will see improvement.

Remember that this difficult divorce shall pass. While it is life-shattering now, life will gradually improve, a smile will eventually return to your face, and you will be that much the wiser as you look to love again.


Graphic by Luis Prado (https://thenounproject.com/search/?q=abuse&i=38107) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Anger and Stress Hurt The Heart – Dealing with Anger in Divorce

The importance of learning to manage anger and stress during divorce.

divorce support for men
Learn to let go of anger during divorce ASAP

Recently, I was emailed a moving letter from a father  in my online anger management class…

‘Dear Dr. Schinnerer:

I want to let you know that your online anger management class has been very  helpful. The tools you teach are working. I am in the midst of an ugly divorce. While my (ex) wife continues to behave in difficult and anger-inducing ways, I am getting better and better at forgiving her and letting my own anger go. My children have seen a big improvement in my anger and have told the court they would like to spend more time with me. I want to be a better father. I want to be healthier. Last year, I had a massive heart attack. It was scary as hell. I thought I was a goner. Your anger class has shown me that much of my health issues were due to excessive anger. Before my heart attack, I had no idea that anger could lead to physical issues! I was great at blaming others for my anger. Now, I have done a 180 and am taking responsibilty for how I feel. Thanks to you, I’ve realized that anger can hurt my heart as well as damage my relationships. I have also learned ways to become happier. Thank you for teaching me new ways of dealing with anger.’

I often emphasize just how damaging chronic, long-term anger is on the heart. The same is true for long-term stress. Chronic stress and anger hurt your brain, your heart and your lungs (among other things). So it is important to learn new ways to handle them more effectively.

The Connection Between Anger and Heart Disease

In a recent study in the American Academy of Family Physicians, researchers concluded that men and women with high levels of chronic anger and stress are at much higher risk of heart disease.  The study found men with high levels of chronic anger were over one and half times as likely to develop high blood pressure. Individuals with frequent, high intensity anger were 90% more likely to progress from prehypertension to coronary heart disease when compared to people with lower intensity anger.

The Connection Between Heart Disease and Stress

Both men and women with long-standing levels of stress had more than 1.5 times the chance of developing heart disease as compared to others with low to moderate levels of stress. This means people with high levels of chronic stress are almost twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease. Yet, these issues are totally preventable – all that needs to be done is learn new ways of relating to and managing stress. The authors of the study state that quality stress management and anger management classes are tremendously helpful to reduce stres and anger and ultimately, prevent the unnecessary progression to coronary heart disease.

The Major Negative Emotions Are Linked to Heart Disease

Three negative emotions – depression, anxiety and anger – were all linked to coronary heart disease in a recent study published in the Psychological Bulletin.  These findings indicate that it is more of a general disposition towards negative emotions that may be more critical for the risk of heart disease than any one specific emotion. Prevention is key. Learning new ways to turn down the intensity and frequency of anger and stress is paramount.

A Predisposition to Negative Emotions 

Work by Richard Davidson at University of Wisconsin has shown that one of our main brain circuits determines how quickly we recover from negative emotions.  Rarely do I work with someone who is only angry, or solely anxious, or only depressed. More often, such individuals have a hard time bouncing back from all the major negative emotions (e.g. anger, sadness and anxiety) due to the way in which this brain circuit works in them. While this is not their fault, it is a necessary life lesson to learn tools to manage these emotions for the good of their health and the happiness of their loved ones.

Inevitably, people will begin to learn that a predisposition towards negative emotions (e.g. hostility, anger, anxiety and depression) harms the heart. By learning high quality stress management techniques and anger management tools, this risk can be greatly reduced.

If you are interested in online anger management classes, please email DrJohn@WebAngerManagement.com or check the website at WebAngerManagement.com.