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.”

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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.

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