The Number One Predictor of Divorce—and How to Fix It

After four decades of research, the world's foremost marriage therapist noticed a clear pattern among couples that didn't stay together.

Even if you and your partner have been having some heated arguments lately, it doesn’t mean you’re headed for disaster. “Relationships die by ice rather than fire,” says McNulty. “Some couples eventually stop trying to dialogue. They find working on key conflicts to be too difficult or painful. They give up. They grow more distant, and live more like roommates than spouses. In the end, emotional disengagement is truly the ultimate sign of a relationship headed towards divorce. “If you’re both still arguing you haven’t yet reached the point of surrender,” says McNulty.

 

Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,  is one of the world’s foremost marriage therapists. He’s spent four decades studying couples at The Gottman Institute in order to determine what really causes a rift between two people—and how to fix it. Here’s where it gets interesting: After all that research, Dr. Gottman noticed a clear pattern among couples that didn’t stay together, identifying what he says is the #1 predictor of divorce. Ready for it?

It’s contempt.

Yes—as in eye-rolling, disgust-feeling, negative-thinking contempt. Many of us have felt it for a partner before—but even if you’re feeling it right now, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to separate. Here, Gottman Institute expert Mike McNulty, PhD, LCSW, breaks down what every couple needs to know, including why contempt is so detrimental to a relationship, how to spot it (in both your partner and yourself) and—perhaps most importantly—how to stop it.

How Contempt Occurs

It’s normal to feel annoyed at your partner or to disagree on things, but when you allow yourself to reach a level of contempt or disgust for him or her, that’s when McNulty says it becomes unhealthy. Every couple fights, and every couple has issues: “All relationships involve ongoing, perpetual problems that will resurface,” says McNulty. But it’s how you handle them—either with kindness or contempt—that can make or break you as a couple. “Partners who do not handle discussions of these problems well are at the most risk of divorce,” he says. Imagine discussing a recurring issue, such as a difficult mother-in-law or major difference in libidos. “Partners who are headed towards divorce have the following tendencies: They become angry and use what we call the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse or negative patterns of communication, which are criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness,” says McNulty. “This leads to something we call ‘diffuse physiological arousal’ or ‘flooding’ [which involves] one or both partners’ bodies releasing hormones as heart rates accelerate, muscles become tense, the skin becomes hot or sweaty, and the stomach feels nervous.” Sound familiar? If you’ve ever experienced a “heated” argument in which you felt your voice or blood pressure rise, you know that this mental state isn’t conducive to a civil conversation. “In this state, partners cannot take in new information and they lose their senses of humor and creativity,” explains McNulty. In other words, you’d be better off speaking later when you’re both feeling more calm. “All of these factors make discussing the important ongoing problems totally unworkable,” McNulty says.

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