Can Divorce Be Predicted?

While hundreds of studies exist concerning the results of divorce and separation, less than a handful have been conducted concerning the prediction or likelihood of divorce for a couple. Thanks to John M. Gottman, Ph.D., who has pioneered predictive research, there are many marriage and family therapists who conduct a premarital test to assess a couples' likelihood of marital satisfaction.

  One notable trait among couples
whose marriages predictably deteriorated
was the pattern of "stonewalling".

One study Gottman conducted involved videotaping couples as they came together to resolve an area of conflict in their marriage. The couples physiological responses such as heart rates, blood velocity, skin conductance and gross motor movement were monitored with surprising results. It was discovered that the deterioration of marital satisfaction could be predicted by physiological arousal, particularly on the part of the husband. The calmer the couple's physiological response, the more a marriage improved over time, and conversely, the couple whose hearts beat faster, whose blood flowed quicker and who found themselves sweating and moving in an agitated manner, had marriages that deteriorated over three years. The researchers found that with physiological data alone they could predict the course of marital satisfaction with a 95% degree of accuracy!

Dealing With Conflict

Conflict was not bad for a marriage, although uncomfortable at the time. It was rather the response to the conflict—open and calm behavior vs. defensive and avoiding type of behavior. One notable trait among couples whose marriages predictably deteriorated was the pattern of "stonewalling" by the husband. Stonewalling is defined as a behavior style in which the listener presents a stone wall to the speaker. There is little movement or the head, such as nods, and little of the typical brief verbal acknowledgements common to a listener who is participating. When husbands stonewalled...marriage satisfaction deteriorated.

Also destructive was over-agreeable, compliant behavior on the part of the wife. Also predictive facial expressions! When the researchers turned the sound down on the videotapes and studied facial expressions alone, they found couples who were likely to separate showed the following: disgust on the part of the wife, fear on the husband's face, followed by miserable smiles by both. The behaviors that went along with these highly readable expressions were an increase in defensiveness, more excuses, and more denial of responsibility. Add a husband's stonewalling, and a wife's verbalizing of contempt, and divorce could be accurately predicted.

The stonewaller pays a high price for his behavior as the study showed over a period of four years. This behavior predicted the husbands' loneliness which in turn was a precursor to deteriorating health.

The study also showed men who do housework were significantly healthier four years down the road! Indications were that men who did housework were less likely to avoid conflict, less overwhelmed by the emotions of their spouses, and had lower, calmer heart rates during times of conflict with their wives.

Positive Results

The good news is that "hot marital conflict" is not a bad or negative thing in and of itself. Marriages that improved and were satisfactory were marriages in which the conflict was met with positive elements such as humor, empathy, affection, positive problem-solving and an active will to listen non-defensively. These positive attributes kept the physiological responses calmer as well.


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The message is clear. Develop and practice positive behaviors to incorporate into times of conflict. Practice them, because when the emotions elevate in conflict we are less likely to be able to access these unless they are becoming second nature.


The above was excerpted with permission from "Marriage - Heart To Heart Questions to Discuss Before You Say 'I Do'!", by Hans J. Keller & MaryEllen O'Brien, ©1994, published by VisionLink Education Foundation, P.O. Box 4247, South Burlington, VT 05406. Info/Order a used copy of this book


Recommended book:

7 Stages of Marriage: Laughter, Intimacy and Passion Today, Tomorrow, Forever
by Rita M. DeMaria and Sari Harrar.

Info/Order this book


About The Authors

Hans Keller is a Swiss born globalist and leading edge thinker. MaryEllen O'Brien is a broadcaster and writer.


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