Predictors of Divorce According to Science

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The extensive research of Drs. John and Julie Gottman have provided us with four primary predictors of divorce. They have termed these four main predictors, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and they are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.

The Four Horsemen That Predict the End of a Marriage

All relationships have some degree of these characteristics. However, if more than one is present or one is unyielding, there will be doubts about the viability of your marriage. Here are some ways that these characteristics can signal trouble.


Some criticism is unavoidable in a relationship, but it becomes unhealthy when you do it in a way that implies something is inherently wrong with your partner. You may also be attacking your partner’s personality or character.

The intent is to win the argument or prove your spouse wrong. For instance, saying, “you always…,” “you never…,” or “you’re the type of person who …” or “why are you so …” will make the spouse feel attacked and is likely to elicit a defensive response. These bad patterns cause you both to not feel heard. You both may start to feel bad about yourselves when you are around each other.

It is critical to make a specific complaint about your partner’s behavior and not attack their personality. For instance, saying, "When A happened, I felt B," or "I need C."


Contempt is the scariest of the bunch. It concerns any statement or behavior, verbal or nonverbal, that asserts superiority to your partner. 

Examples of such behaviors may be mocking your partner, name-calling, eye-rolling, showing hostility, insensitive joking, hurtful sarcasm, sneering in disgust, and so on. It attacks your spouse’s sense of self. It is also intended to put down or emotionally abuse or manipulate him or her.

Couples must work to completely eliminate such behaviors. A culture of respect, appreciation, tolerance, and kindness is a basic requirement in marriage.


Defensiveness arises from a perceived attack with your own counter-complaint. It is also another way to act like a victim or not to take responsibility for your mistakes. Such behaviors include making excuses or saying things like, “It’s not my fault.”

It can also involve cross-complaining. This is when you match your partner’s complaint or criticism with one of your own. You then ignore what your partner said. Other defensive behaviors are “yes-butting” or simply repeating yourself without really paying attention to what your spouse is saying.

Aim to slow down and try to listen to your partner’s perspective.

You do not have to be perfect. Consciously communicate by speaking honestly and listening well. Don’t forget to validate your partner by letting him or her know you get what they are feeling.


Complete withdrawal from communication (and essentially the relationship) as a strategy to avoid conflict is called stonewalling. It may take the form of physically leaving or completely shutting down. Stonewalling might be giving the “silent treatment,” monosyllabic mutterings, changing the subject, or storming out. This might be an, albeit unsuccessful, attempt to calm oneself when overwhelmed, but it conveys disconnection, disapproval, distancing, and arrogance.

The antidote to stonewalling is to learn to identify the signs that you or your partner is starting to feel emotionally overwhelmed. It’s a good idea to verbalize that you feel overwhelmed. You can both agree to take a break and that the conversation will resume when you are both calmer.

Use Your Knowledge to Improve Your Relationship

There are ways to better control these behaviors in your relationship. After an argument, claim responsibility for your piece in the escalation. What can you learn from it and what can you do about it?

There are many things you can do to help reduce tension or de-escalate an argument. For instance, apologize, express your understanding, or demonstrate your concern. There is no good reason to push buttons or purposely escalate the argument.

Virtually all negative interactions with your partner are really a self-perpetuating cycle that thankfully you can exit from. When one of you gets triggered, the other reacts, there is a reaction to the reaction, so on and so forth. Slow things down and self-reflect by figuring out what you might actually be feeling underneath. For instance, are you really hurt when you yell in anger? You need to get comfortable expressing that deeper part of yourself.

All of us have a lot to learn and to benefit from the Gottmans' research. But, if you still find the "Four Horsemen" are ruining your relationship, it’s time to seek out a skilled marriage therapist.

6 Sources
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