Prevent divorce — with science!

Back in 2002, psychologists studying how couples argued found four different behaviors that correlated strongly with future divorce. In fact, in a small sample of 80 couples, the combination of those behaviors could be used to predict who would divorce over the next 14 years with 93% accuracy. The good news: While these behaviors are all things that people probably do sometimes, it's the frequency of behaviors that matters ... and, better yet, they're all things that you can change. At PsySociety, Melanie Tannenbaum uses the amazingly spot-on example of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries to illustrate how unhealthy arguments can lead to relationship collapse.


  1. Yes – contempt!  I’ve learned previously that contempt itself is the absolute key indicator.

    Mind you, if someone can put up with those four behaviours for 14 years, I’ll send them a badge.

    1.  This reminds me of too many Seinfeld episodes.  Now, there’s a slice of Americana that can’t be ignored. Remember the one where a man told the woman George was dating that Goerge couldn’t commit?  So George decides, even though he can’t stand the woman he’s dating, he’s going to marry her and stay together no matter what.  Does this stuff really happen??

    2. People should stop focusing on marrying someone whom they love and instead marry someone whom they like.

  2. Back when I worked in a jewellery store, I was disturbed by how often couples would express some or all of the above behaviours…  while shopping for their engagement rings or wedding bands.

    It’s interesting how we regularily teach young children about how to treat strangers and friends (sharing, being polite, kindness, etc) but somehow the message doesn’t come across as applying equally to lovers/spouses.

  3. I don’t get it. Why prevent divorce if your relationship is like this? Isn’t this more like four signs you should file for divorce? 

    1. Sometimes, people really like other aspects of their relationships but have bad argument habits that can poison the relationship over all. In that case, it would be valuable to learn how to argue in a healthy way and maybe you can salvage the good stuff about your relationship while getting rid of the bad. 

      Alternately, if you have a really crappy relationship that isn’t worth saving, this might help you avoid the same problems in the next one. 

      1.  Also, if the marriage is far enough along that kids are involved, it’s worth trying to repair the relationship and make it into a healthy one so that the kids can grow up in a house with two parents who are in a good relationship.

    2.  These things develop over time – annoyance grows into contempt over years if not checked.  The same applies to the others.

      Good flags for identifying and working on a relationship.  Contrary to popular media representations and general impressions, real grownup relationships actually take a lot of ongoing effort and work.

  4. They seem to me to be signs that you don’t care enough about the other person or the relationship in general. Building other people up and investing time and effort into the relationship shows faith in its future and is a good sign that you’ll act with selflessness when it’s really needed. I wouldn’t write people off who show some of these signs, but long term they’re pretty poisonous and they need to be addressed.

    1. They don’t necessarily show a lack of caring about the relationship – just a lack of competence at turning caring into effective nurturing.  Competence is something that can be built by conscious practice.

      1. Yeah, that was a bit harsh. My point was that you invest in things you value and expect to last, and while it is perfectly possible to demonstrate these behaviours at times (I know I do), when these becomes the pattern in a relationship it’s a good sign that you don’t value the other person as much as you should. At least in my case, when I’ve caught myself demonstrating these behaviours I’ve also noticed that I’d unintentionally been showing a lack of care for the other person’s needs over my own, and at times also a lack of commitment for the future. If you’re habitually showing all four, I’d say it’s probably more than just finding it hard to express love. The good thing is, you can actually change if you recognise the signs.

  5. Seems like that ranking people on these 4 scales is so subjective that the headline might as well be “Researchers predict divorce with 93% accuracy based on gut feeling”.

    1. A gut feeling with 93% accuracy seems like something worth following up. I don’t think my gut feelings do much better than chance.

      1. True. Then again the 14-year divorce rate in the states is so high that you would probably have decent accuracy by just predicting divorce every time..

        1. Not true actually.  You’d do better flipping a coin:

          Plus I was being snarky.  I bet if you read the actual research paper instead of the scientific american blog post you would see that the researchers use fairly precise definitions to determine whether behaviors fall into the indicated categories rather than “gut feelings”.

          Being skeptical and being contrarian are two different things.

        2. If I read TFA correctly, the 93% accuracy figure is based on a smaller study from 1992, that made 3 incorrect predictions out of 47 couples – it predicted 10 of the couples would divorce and 37 would stay married.  7 of the 10 predicted to divorce did (30% false positive rate), while all 37 of those predicted to stay married did (0% false negative rate).

          I found the divorce rate among the 47 couples studied to be surprisingly low – 7 divorces over 14 years.  I also would have expected a much higher rate from a US-based study.

          Maybe participation in studies on how couples interact is correlated to couples examining how they themselves interact, recognizing problems, and working to correct them.

          1. You might consider how the divorce rate is skewed by people who divorce two or three times, not to mention Mickey Rooney and Zsa Zsa Gabor. I have a friend who was divorced three times before she turned 21.

    2.  Actually, Gottman and his research team have spent decades developing qualitative analysis methods that have very high inter-rater reliability and validity.  Their assessment of couples is based on very intense, detailed coding of verbals and non-verbals while watching video of couple interactions, and they’ve been very methodical and rigorous about backing up their assertions about what themes they’re coding for and what is a valid member of each theme.  I’ve been using Gottman’s research in my teaching and couple therapy for years and it’s solid stuff.

  6. “researchers in the field believe that the truly important contribution
    of this work is not the ability to identify doomed relationships and
    “predict divorce” as a cute party trick”

    but that’s exactly why I clicked on the article link in the first place!

  7. Gottman’s work is solid.  It’s been tested by decades of use and it is still standing as a successful science-based approach to marriage/counseling.  His ideas are simple, his approaches are understandable to any layman, and they can be implemented immediately by any couple who is so inclined.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Social Science solution that is so neat and tidy as Gottman’s work. 

    I don’t know what the thinking in the scientific community is – but I’m of the opinion that Social Sciences tend to be far looser and messier than pretty much any other discipline.  Also they are far more open to interpretation.  Social Sciences least represent what I love about Science, and I think there a lot of room for crankery and political subtext to take hold.

    Gottman’s work however, stands by itself and does not appear to be susceptible to the same tropes.

    I love Gottman, if that wans’t clear.  I’ve used his work more than once to help bring my marriage back from dark/hard places.

    1.  Combine his work with Susan Johnson et al’s work on Emotionally Focused Therapy (super-detailed process and outcome research based couple therapy method) and you have one of the best toolkits for having a healthy relationship that I know of.  I say this as someone with a PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy.  (“Hold Me Tight” is Johnson’s book for a lay audience – sounds like you already know Gottman’s self-help books.)

  8. I have a 100% effective way of preventing divorce.

    It’s called don’t get married. ;) (Granted, there are some backwaters where social attitudes are such that grabbing the old 12 gauge and forcing the couple to go to the courthouse to get married under threat of gunfire is considered completely acceptable. So, it’s not *100%* effective, but it’s damn close.)

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