Predictors of Divorce

Written by Amy Rollo, M.A., LPA, LSSP, LPC-S

Founder of Heights Family Counseling

“Will my marriage last?” Wouldn’t that be a terrifying question to hear answered when you start couples therapy? However, Dr. John Gottman and his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, have spent a career answering that question. In fact, with approximately 94 percent accuracy, Dr. Gottman has found a formula to predict the stability of a relationship within 15 minutes of meeting a couple.

 Dr. Gottman has found that the way a conversation starts, predicts how the conversation will end 96 percent of the time. I’ll let that one sink in. That means there is a huge difference between, “I’m feeling overwhelmed being the only one responsible for taking out the trash. Can you take it out tonight,” and “You are so freaking lazy. I do all the things around the house and you can’t even manage to take out the trash.” The first example is referred to as a soft start-up while the latter is a harsh start-up. We know that soft startups have a much better outcome, but did you know that couples who start out with less negativity in the first minutes of a conversation are more equipped in deescalating conflict AND more likely to stay together?

Dr. Gottman also discovered four kinds of negativity, “The Four Horsemen,” that occur within conflict that can predict instability in a relationship. The Four Horsemen include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (shutting down or withdrawing emotionally).

 Flooding, and don’t panic Houston, we aren’t talking about when it rains here, can be predictive of instability in the relationship. Flooding in this case is referred to as “DPA” or Diffuse physiological arousal. It is a fight or flight response that occurs during conflict for some couples and individuals. This can be very dangerous because the body has physical symptoms, such as a heart rate of 100 beats per minutes (lower for athletes), and the loss of rational thought. Flooding in a relationship typically falls into a pattern of one partner overwhelmed with emotional intensity and pursuing the other, while the other shuts down. Flooding can increase conflict and the four horsemen. Learning how to self-soothe and take breaks can be vital for the relationship.

Repair attempts are anything that a partner does to help de-escalate conflict. It can be a casual change of subject, a smile, a hug, or a “I’m sorry.” The most important aspect in predicting marriage stability is if a couple is able to make repair attempts and how they respond to them. Failing to make repair attempts or de-escalating when you notice your partner is making one is one reliable sign that divorce is in the future.

Lastly, the narrative you think and tell about your relationship and partner can be predictive of marriage stability/instability. The couples who glorify their struggles tend to be in happier marriages. They might note, “We didn’t have a lot of money back then, but we worked hard and always managed to pay the bills. We were so in love.” Instead of, “We were poor, and always stressed, and I remember not knowing if we could pay the rent each month.” Drawing strength from the struggles is often predictive of a healthy marriage.  

Many couples panic after reading and learning about the predictions of divorce. However, Dr. Gottman has created an entire therapy designed to help couples in these areas. Through couples therapy, couples can learn to communicate more effectively, use conflict to grow, and better understand each other.