The four greatest predictors of divorce

“Marriage is an extremely difficult relationship.”–Lee Radziwill
Being in a relationship is difficult work.  Whenever two completely unique individuals choose to spend a significant amount of time together, conflict is bound to occur.  We all see the world through our own lens and it is often difficult to remember that others don’t see it the way we do.  As I work with couples, one of the things I listen for is what is called the ‘Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.’  Dr. John Gottman has done a significant amount of research with couples and he has been able to identify four behaviors that accurately predict divorce.  When couples are entrenched in these four behaviors a significant amount of time, there is an 80-90% chance that the couple will get a divorce.  While it is normal for healthy couples to display these behaviors from time to time, if these behaviors are becoming routine ways of communicating, trouble is looming.

  1. Criticism. This is when partners attack each other’s character instead of focusing on specific behaviors that the partner displays.  It is generally where one partner is right and the other one is wrong.  If, for example, one partner leaves their dirty dishes in the living room, criticism would be saying something like, “You never pick up your dishes!  What’s wrong with you?” or “I always have to clean up after you.  You’re worse then a kid!”
  2. Contempt. Contempt is a notch above criticism.  This is when partners begin to purposely insult and degrade their partner.  It is showing your partner flagrant disrespect.  This involves a lot of name calling and ‘jokes.’  For the dishes example, it would be comments like, “You are such a lazy slob!  You should go live with pigs!”  This also includes behaviors like constant eye rolling when a partner is attempting to talk. Of the four horsemen, this is the biggest predictor of divorce.
  3. Defensiveness. While some defensiveness is normal during conflict, this is a mode of self-protection.  It is behaviors like playing the victim, denying what the partner is saying, passing the blame, or meeting one complaint with another, instead of taking responsibility.  In the dishes argument, it would be saying things like, “I always clean up my dishes!  You are the one that leaves dishes all over the house!”
  4. Stonewalling. Of the ‘Four Horseman of the Apocalypse,’ this one is the most difficult for many people to deal with on a regular basis.  People who stonewall simply refuse to engage in any interaction with their partner.  They stare at the TV or ignore the partner completely when they are talking.  Men tend to engage in stonewalling more frequently than women.  When a partner is stonewalling, it appears that they have checked out and no longer have any desire to fight or defend.

If these four behaviors sound familiar and are used frequently, it may be time to take a close look at your relationship.  Over the next four weeks I will be focusing more on each of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and sharing strategies to help improve communication.

—This post is based on the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail by John Gottman, Ph.D.

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