It’s estimated that in the US, 2.5 in 1,000 people get divorced annually. While the cause of any relationship breakdown is complex and linked to a myriad of wider factors, psychologists have been able to track down a number of behaviors that appear to have a close link to a couple’s divorce.
One of the leading experts on the matter is Dr John Gottman, a professor emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington whose decades of research have tightly focused on divorce prediction and marital stability.
In his book What Predicts Divorce? first published in 1993, he outlined four of the most problematic communication behaviors that can predict whether married couples will break up:
- Contempt: Not taking the concerns of the partner seriously, often expressed through gestures like name-calling, sarcasm, hostile humor, eye-rolling, ridiculing, etc.
- Criticism: persistent attacks on a partner’s character, beliefs, personality, appearance, or actions.
- Defensiveness: Denying responsibility when approached with criticism or advice.
- Stonewalling: Disengaging from communication by ignoring or acting busy.
Gottman calls these factors the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
Based on seven studies involving hundreds of couples, Gottman claims it’s possible to predict with over 90 percent accuracy which couples would divorce and which will stay together. On top of personality types, these four factors play a major role in the success of marriages, he argues.
“Couples who had the Four Horsemen divorced an average of 5.6 years after the wedding, while emotionally disengaged couples divorced an average of 16.2 years after the wedding,” Gottman’s website explains.
According to his research, the most crucial factor is contempt, as this is the strongest predictor for a marriage ending with a divorce. Fortunately, he has identified some possible antidotes to this marital toxin.
In the short-term, contempt can be eased by people describing your own feelings and needs about any given issue. People should try to avoid using “you” statements, which can make partners feel blamed or attacked.
In the longer term, it’s important to develop a culture of fondness and admiration for each other.
However, it’s worth remembering that divorce isn’t solely predicted by psychology, but also by an array of cultural, economic, and legal factors. Since the 19th century, the divorce rate in the US has undergone a number of peaks and falls that had a close relationship with wider social trends. The most dramatic change in divorce rates occurred in the 1970s, when it became easier to legally divorce in many states.