5 Divorce Predictors and How to Overcome Them

Research has identified factors that significantly raise the likelihood of a divorce. Find out what you can do to reduce the risk in your marriage.

By , Legal Content Manager

Happily ever after doesn't come without its challenges. Look no further than the endless supply of books on how to make a marriage work to see that it takes time and energy to nurture communication, intimacy, and trust.

Some marriage troubles can be hard to overcome and increase the chance of divorce. Learn about five research-backed divorce predictors and what you can do to move the odds of staying together in your favor.

What Is a Divorce Predictor?

The 1960s and 70s saw a sharp rise in married couples splitting up at a time when no-fault divorce laws were being passed in many states. This so-called "divorce revolution" opened the floodgates to a wave of research looking to explain its causes.

Decades of studies on opposite-sex divorce reveal a number of reasons—from incompatibility to lack of intimacy. Based on study findings and observations of couples in counseling, sociologists and psychologists have identified factors that they consider to be reliable predictors of divorce. In other words, they significantly raise the likelihood of a marriage ending.

Every Marriage Is Different

As you read about some of them here, keep in mind that every marriage is different. One couple's deal-breaker might be the spark that puts another's relationship on a path to healthy change.

Divorce Predictor 1: Contempt

Drs. John and Julie Gottman have researched marital stability for over 40 years and have identified four communication styles that reportedly predict divorce with 90% accuracy. They're collectively known as the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Of the styles, the most serious sign that the end of a marriage could be near is contempt.

"Contempt" in this context refers to direct verbal or nonverbal attacks that approach emotional abuse. Examples include ridicule, eye-rolling, name-calling, and sneering. It erodes trust and weakens positive emotions between the couple.

How to Repair the Damage

It can be difficult but not impossible to overcome the effects of contempt on a marriage. The Gottmans offer what they call an antidote that focuses on expressing appreciation to each other to help spouses repair the damage.

Divorce Predictor 2: Infidelity

Infidelity in a marriage comes in different forms. The most well-known is sexual infidelity (adultery)—having an affair that involves intimate physical contact.

But emotional infidelity—having a romantic relationship outside the marriage that doesn't involve sex—can be just as harmful in certain relationships. Some spouses might also consider activities such as viewing pornography as cheating.

Infidelity rates are hard to pinpoint, as it's not an easy thing to admit. What we do know is that affairs have consequences. A review of General Social Survey data showed that 40% of currently or previously married adults who had sex with someone other than their spouse during marriage were either separated or divorced.

Cheating Doesn't Always Lead to Divorce

While infidelity no doubt puts a heavy emotional strain on a marriage, it doesn't always lead to divorce.

"Sometimes affairs can be a wakeup call," says Dr. Vagdevi Meunier, a licensed psychologist who has provided couples counseling for more than three decades. "They can be the result of ignoring red flags in the relationship on both sides. It may be a symptom and not a cause."

A 2004 study backs that up with findings that sexual infidelity is both "a cause and consequence of relationship deterioration." But with serious reflection and effort, it's possible to keep a marriage intact.

Dr. Meunier asserts, "It's a really good idea to slow down and work through the affair to understand how it happened and ask yourselves, ‘Is it worth reinvesting in this relationship?' Are we both willing to do the work we need to do to stay committed?'"

Divorce Predictor 3: The Divorce Cycle

It's well-documented that children of divorced parents are more likely to see their own marriages end. The tendency for divorce to run in families is called "the intergenerational transmission of divorce" or "the divorce cycle."

Sociologist Nicholas H. Wolfinger studied national survey data for his book Understanding the Divorce Cycle: The Children of Divorce in Their Own Marriages. The research showed that when one spouse comes from a divorced home, their own marriage had a 50% higher risk of ending. The risk when both partners had experienced parental divorce is 200% higher.

The question that's been asked for decades is why? The best answer is that it's complicated.

Reasons for the Divorce Cycle

Research to explain the divorce cycle has largely focused on three areas:

  • Weak relationship skills. Some research supports the theory that children who grow up in unstable families don't learn positive relationship skills such as compromise and how to work through conflict—behaviors that are necessary for a lasting marriage.
  • Low commitment to marriage. Other studies look at how parental divorce sets the example for young people that relationships don't always last forever, sometimes lowering their commitment to the notion of "‘till death do us part."
  • Genetic factors. A Swedish study of the public records of people adopted as children suggested a potential genetic link to divorce. Researchers found that the adoptees' divorce histories were similar to those of their biological parents and siblings—not those of the families they grew up in. It raised the possibility that inherited traits, such as high emotionality, neuroticism, and impulsiveness, could play a role in the divorce cycle.

Breaking the Divorce Cycle

The good news for adult children of divorced parents is that couples therapy has been shown to have similar benefits for spouses whose parents split up as it does for those whose parents stayed together.

Divorce Predictor 4: Marital Disillusionment

Disillusionment, or strong disappointment, in a marriage is considered an important predictor of divorce. So much so that researchers Sylvia Niehuis and Denise Bartell developed a tool to measure it.

The Marital Disillusionment Scale asks 16 questions to compare your feelings about your partner now with what they were when you first got married. Your score can range from 16 to 112. The idea is that the higher the result, the more dissatisfied you are with your relationship.

What to Make of Your Score

Your score shouldn't make or break a decision of whether to divorce. Think of it as just one way to help measure an emotion that could be influencing satisfaction with your marriage. It might help you focus on issues to work on.

Divorce Predictor 5: Marrying Young or After Age 35

Rom-coms would have us believe that it's never too early or too late to tie the knot. While the heart may want what it wants, it turns out that age of first marriage can matter when it comes to divorce.

Nicholas H. Wolfinger analyzed divorce data from the 2011-2014 National Survey of Family Growth and found that—after five years of marriage—couples who wed in their teens and early 20s had the highest risk of divorce (38% and 27% respectively). Young couples often face greater financial struggles and lack relationship and life experiences needed to build a stable marriage. These factors could help to explain the findings.

The best outlook for a lasting first marriage is for couples who wed between the ages of 25 and 29 (14%) and 30 to 34 (10%). Once a couple reaches their mid-30s and beyond, the risk rises back up to 17%.

Wolfinger speculates that the upward trend for the over 35s might be because they don't face the same financial and social pressures that can be barriers to divorce for younger couples.

How to Beat the Odds

Research has shown that premarital counseling is a valuable tool at any stage of life. Meeting with a therapist before marriage can help couples develop healthy communication skills and set goals for milestones such as having children or buying a home—setting the stage for a successful union.

Getting support from a marriage counselor can also help improve your odds of working through issues that can lead to divorce.

No Marriage Is Doomed to Fail

Overcoming one of these divorce predictors is likely to be a test for any relationship. But just because other couples who faced them divorced, it doesn't mean that your marriage is doomed to fail. Whether it's communication problems, a family history of divorce, or even infidelity, there's hope that with the right tools and support you'll get to your version of the fairy tale ending.

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