Category: Divorce Risk

January 29, 2016

by TARA PARKER-POPE Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

Doctors can predict risk for heart attack, cancer and diabetes. Now, they’re trying to predict the risk for another major health problem: divorce.
The breakdown of a marriage exacts an enormous toll on both mental and physical health. People in troubled relationships are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and high blood pressure. Even so, the medical community historically has had little advice for preventing divorce, which ends 50% of U.S. marriages.

But now a wealth of new research has helped scientists discern what qualities lead to a lasting marriage or a divorce. For instance, research shows eye-rolling after a spouse’s comment can be a strong predictor for divorce, while marriages with traditional gender roles often are highly successful.

While some of the findings may seem obvious, they nonetheless run counter to the way many marital counselors work. And they could very well force counselors to rethink their whole approach to couples therapy.

University of Washington psychology professor John Gottman, a leading divorce-prediction researcher (, has videotaped thousands of couples and codes positive and negative facial expressions, body language and comments.

Dr. Gottman and his colleagues have calculated that strong marriages have at least a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative interactions. When the ratio starts to drop, the marriage is at high risk for divorce.

In real life, no couple can keep a running tally of positive and negative displays. But therapists say it’s important to ramp up the positives after a single negative occurs so the ratio doesn’t slip to a dangerous level. Four negative qualities are the strongest predictors for divorce: contempt, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. Couples also need to be aware of subtle negatives such as facial expressions.

“There are thousands of them that happen in a week’s time in a marriage,” says Cheryl Rampage, senior therapist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

While half of all divorces occur in the first seven years of marriage, a study published this spring in Family Process claimed that another risky time for divorce is in midlife. The study followed 79 Bloomington, Ind., couples that had been married an average of five years. Four years after the research commenced, 9% had divorced. By the end of the 14-year study, 22 couples, or 28%, had divorced.

The couples that divorced early were volatile and negative. But the marriages that ended later were on the opposite end of the spectrum, marked by suppressed emotions — described as the type of couple that sits together in a restaurant but doesn’t talk. Often those couples aren’t aware they are in a high-risk marriage because the early years are so tolerable.

Another researcher, retired University of Virginia professor E. Mavis Hetherington, studied 1,400 families over three decades. She found certain types of marriages are predisposed to divorce, such as the pursuer-distancer marriage, in which the wife typically presses to solve problems, but the husband dismisses her concerns. Another type, the cohesive/individuated marriage is considered low-risk, because the man and wife view themselves as a team.

It’s been shown that one popular counseling technique, “active listening,” doesn’t work in couples therapy. A spouse using active listening would, for instance, repeat the complaint and say, “I hear what you’re saying.”

But in studying couples, it has become clear that real people, especially happily married ones, don’t respond that way. Successful married couples argue, but they take a gentle approach to start the conversation, and they know how to exit an argument if it begins to escalate, and quickly repair the damage.

Traditional counseling also encourages couples to give up their idealized view of relationships and romance, but that view has been challenged. The people with the highest expectations for marriage usually end up with the highest-quality marriages.

Another strong risk factor for divorce is whether the wife influences decision-making. In troubled marriages, the wife wields very little influence over her husband.

Some of the research reinforces risk factors we’ve long known about: Marrying younger than 25 dramatically raises divorce risk. “Even if you make it 10 years, your risk is still higher if you marry as a teen,” says Jay Teachman, chairman of the sociology department at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Age difference is a risk factor when the woman is much older than the man, but the reverse isn’t a problem.

Having a child also is a big factor. Several studies show marital satisfaction drops by 70% in the first few years after the birth of the first child, although later, having a child makes a couple less likely to divorce.

If a marriage has high risk factors for divorce, that doesn’t mean it’s doomed. Many researchers believe couples can “inoculate” a marriage against divorce by seeking counseling before and during a marriage, long before a major crisis hits.

Finally, it has become clear that many marital disagreements simply can’t be solved. In one study, researchers interviewed the same couples four years apart. To their surprise, 70% were still talking and fighting about the same problems in exactly the same way as they were four years earlier. The result has been a push for “acceptance” therapy, encouraging partners to accept the enduring foibles of their spouses rather than trying to change them.

E-mail me at


Tara Parker-Pope writes Health Journal every Friday. Health Journal is devoted to exploring health issues that directly affect our readers’ daily lives, whether it’s alerting them to a new surgical glue that can replace stitches or explaining how too much headache medicine can actually cause headaches. The goal of Health Journal is to arm consumers with information that will help them make informed choices about health and medicine.

Posted in Divorce Risk by Julia Babcock