BC Council for Families

Sliding down a slippery slope: Predictors of divorce

by Rosanne Farnden Lyster

Whether directly or indirectly, all of us have experienced the pain of divorce. When it is projected that close to one-third of all Canadian first marriages will end in divorce, we don't have to look far to find one. But why is this? Why is divorce so prevalent?

There are a lot of factors that contribute to divorce . . . as many reasons for why it happens as there are theorists to theorize about it, and couples who experience it.

A vast array of societal changes are thought to be connected to the increased likelihood of divorce. We are less agrarian, so we are further removed from needing a spouse for survival. Women have moved into the labour force and are able to support themselves. The divorce laws have changed from needing to show fault to no-fault. People are more individualistic. There is a climate of liberalism. We have a more secularized view of marriage. People are increasingly mobile. While these trends seem to explain why divorce is more prevalent that it was 50 or even 25 years ago, a more important question is whether there really are more miserable marriages that there were 50 years ago, or whether couples are now able to choose divorce over mediocrity or a living Hades.

I don't think many couples enter marriage planning to become a divorce statistic. When couples make their vows to each other, few include the vow (or even the thought) “Until divorce do us part.” Most couples hope that they will have a satisfying, if not passionate, long-term marriage. What happens then? Why do one-time seemingly happy couples end up in the offices of divorce lawyers and mediators?

Two research teams (John Gottman at the University of Washington in Seattle and Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg at the University of Denver) have been conducting studies over the last two decades in an attempt to really understand relationships. Between them, they have developed some fairly accurate predictors of whether or not a relationship will succeed or fail. It is interesting that both groups believe that they can predict the likelihood of any one couple divorcing with over 90% accuracy. And, they can even make this prediction from a premarital standpoint.

Both Gottman and the team at Denver agree on what it is that predicts the success of a relationship—conflict. The intriguing part is that it is not the presence of conflict, but the way in which conflict is dealt with that predicts divorce. Compatibility is not the key to a successful marriage. Dealing with incompatibility is.

Marriage types

We all know couples who fight like cats and dogs one minute, and the next seem to be happy with each other, only to go on to another unpleasant fight. Likewise, most know couples who never seem to fight, let alone discuss issues. Their relationship is always calm. Then there are those couples who talk to each other with great empathy, listening carefully to what each other says, reflecting and empathizing as they go. Which of these couples has the healthy marriage style? Which is more likely to end up in divorce?

According to John Gottman, all of these couples have stable and potentially satisfying marriage patterns. The first couple have what he calls a “volatile marriage.” They fight frequently and often with great intensity. What makes this couple different from some frequent fighters is that they actually get around to resolving their differences. A danger for volatile couples is if the bickering they engage in overwhelms the positive times.

The second couple are in the group called “avoidant.” Most people would say that avoidance is bad, but research seems to show that avoidance is actually okay sometimes. These couples are conflict minimizers, choosing to make light of their differences rather than resolving them. Avoidant couples seem to appeal to their basic shared philosophy of marriage. “They reaffirm what they love and value in marriage, accentuate the positive, and accept the rest. In this way, they often end an unresolved discussion still feeling good about one another.” (Gottman,1994).

The third couple fit the term “validating marriage.” This group of couples are the ones that typically get labelled as having a “perfect marriage.” Or at least it seems that way from the outside. These couples recognize conflicts, acknowledge differences openly and address them honestly and calmly before they degenerate into shouting matches. (Gottman, 1994b).

All three of these marriage types are considered to be satisfying/stable, even though they are very different. Each has its drawbacks, but couples in these marriages are unlikely to divorce. What is similar about them? They have a balance between positive and negative emotional interactions. Both Gottman and the Denver team have come up with the same ratio of 5:1. Couples need five positive interactions for every less than positive one.

It is a bit like the ph balance of soil. Just as plants need soil that is neither too acidic nor too alkaline, relationships need an environment that is conductive to their life. Marriages, in order to survive in a satisfying fashion, need “good moments of mutual pleasure, passion, humour, support, kindness, and generosity to outweigh (by 5:1) the bad moments of complaint, criticism, anger, disgust, contempt, defensiveness, and coldness.” (Gottman, 1994b).

So then, what predicts divorce? One obvious indicator is the emotional climate. Is the couple able to maintain a ration of 5:1? When they fight, disagree, discuss, etc., are they able to interact with each other in a way that love and respect are still experienced? If the answer is no to either of these, the couple may not be together for long.

Another predictor of divorce has to do with incompatible conflict resolution styles. Couples who can't agree on a way to address conflict don't do too well. For example, a volatile person married to an avoider. If this couple can't negotiate a common style of conflict resolution, frustration will grow so high that the relationship will be unstable and unpleasant. One of the earliest tasks of any relationship is establishing a pattern of resolving conflict that works for that couple. Failure to do this is not a good sign for the relationship's success.

While both of the research teams agree on the 5:1 rule, they also both agree that there are negative patterns in marriage that quickly overpower the magic ratio. Relationships with an ingrained pattern of any of these negative behaviours can be considered toxic.

Each team has come up with a list of four destructive qualities. Obviously, there is some overlap in the lists. The presence of any of these negative patterns does not necessarily indicate that the relationship is doomed but they do mean that work is needed, and soon.

The Denver Lab: four patterns that hurt relationships

1. Escalation
Escalation is a process of one-up-manship. Each retort in a fight ups the ante so that the conditions get worse with each round. Couples in successful relationships are able to nip escalation in the bud. Couples whose relationship is on tenuous ground are not. The difficulty with escalation is that in the course of hurling verbal weapons at each other, couples will often damage their relationship in a way that makes recovery difficult. If a fight escalates too far, couples really can get out of control in the nasty department and this is dangerous. Markman and his team indicate that the tactics used by escalating couples are equal to marital terrorism.

Escalation can be very subtle. Escalated fights are not necessarily loud but they are destructive. Over the course of a marriage, escalated fights are hard to recover from. Who really wants to be in a marriage where people hurt each other with verbal jabs? Couples need to learn to recognize when they are escalating, and make moves to short-circuit and de-escalate the fight.

2. Invalidation
Invalidation is a pattern of put-downs, either subtle or direct in nature. Invalidation is caustic in a relationship because of the belligerence and contempt that are reflected. Invalidation is an attack on the character of one's partner, and it is never healthy. A subtle form of invalidation is holding back on due and expected praise. It can be made worse by injecting criticism where praise is due. Quite simply, invalidation hurts. The Denver team has shown through their work that invalidation is one of the strongest predictors of divorce.

3. Withdrawal and avoidance
These are two different ways in which people seek to ignore or get out of important discussions. Withdrawal can be physical (leaving the room) or less obvious (getting quiet or shutting down.) Avoidance has the same goal, but the emphasis is on preventing the discussion from ever happening in the first place.

Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg note that the common pattern of one person pursuing in a relationship, while the other withdraws is very destructive. Again, an imbedded pattern of withdrawal or avoidance is one of the most powerful predictors of divorce. Couples need to find ways for pursuers to back off and for withdrawers to engage, in a way that works for both parties.

4. Negative interpretations
A negative interpretation is when one person (or both) consistently holds to the belief that the motives of their partner are more negative than is truly the case. These are inaccurate interpretations in a negative direction. Such interpretation, when ingrained, can become so powerful that it becomes impossible to penetrate. Obviously such negativity can grow with other negative aspects of a relationship. Rarely will one of these patterns exist without some of the others.

Battling negative interpretations does not just mean engaging in positive thinking, but it is a matter of choice. We can choose to view things openly, or at least in the light they are intended, or we can choose to interpret in a way that will destroy the relationship.

John Gottman: The four horsemen of the apocalypse

1. Criticism
Criticism involves attacking someone's personality or character, rather than a specific behaviour and usually with blame. All marriages engage in criticism, but it is when this becomes a pattern that it often speaks of doom. Criticism is just a step across the line from one of the healthiest things that couples do engage in--complaining (airing anger and disagreement.) It is possible to tell the difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint is usually specific and stated from a position of self. “I was worried when you didn't come home at the agreed time.” A criticism is usually more global, is other focused, and involves blame. “You don't care about our relationship!” One obvious strategy for overcoming this block is to both learn and use effective "I" messages.

2. Contempt
Contempt is a step up from criticism and involves the intent to insult and psychologically abuse your partner. Some of the common signs are hostile humour (using humour to tear down), mockery (sarcastic, subtle put-downs), and body language (sneers, rolling your eyes, etc.). Couples who engage in contempt need to stop using arguments to retaliate or show superiority.

3. Defensiveness
Adopting a defensive stance often follows on the heels of the other two horsemen. It is a natural response, but it only adds to the problem in the marriage. We all need to become more aware of our defensive tactics so that we can overcome this pattern. Examples that Gottman names are: denying responsibility; making excuses; cross-complaining (I will meet that complaint and even up it with my retort); yes-butting; whining; and repeating oneself (over and over.) If you can see these patterns in yourself, then you've taken lone step in the right direction. A bigger step would be working to become less defensive so that one can really hear what their partner is saying to them.

4. Stonewalling
Stonewalling is similar to withdrawal and avoidance. It is simply refusing to respond. Used on an occasional basis, it can actually be healthy. But used as a typical pattern, it is destructive. The message of stonewalling is clear: “I am disengaging from any meaningful communication with you.”

The slippery slope

The process a marriage takes in proceeding towards divorce can be like sliding down a slippery slope. Once a pattern of negativity has begun, it can quickly slip out of control. Couples likely are not even aware of the pattern, until after considerable damage has begun. Like a slippery slope, once it starts, slowing down, let alone going backwards, is not easy.

A goal of a healthy marriage is to be intentional, to be aware of the patterns in the relationship. Couples need to have a clear sense of the emotional climate they would like to maintain, and a process of doing this. Relationships with a strong sense of intentionality are less likely to start the slide.

One way to be more intentional in your relationship (or to encourage intentionality in the relationships of those you work with) is to pick up, read, and apply the techniques in the books by Gottman or Markman, et al. They are practical in their application of the research and easy to read. Both are full of exercises and examples and are designed to keep relationships from sliding down the slippery slope.


Gottman, J., Why marriages succeed or fail . . . and how you can make yours last. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994.

Gottman, J., Why marriages fail. The Family Therapy Networker, May/June 1994. (1994b)

Markman, H., Stanley, S.,&Blumberg, S., Fighting for your marriage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994.

Larson, L., Goltz, J.W., & Hobart, C., Families in Canada. Toronto: Prentice-Hall, 1994.

This article first appeared in Family Connections (Summer 1996), published by the BC Council for Families.

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