4 Tiny Signs Marriage Therapists Use To Predict Divorce

Try to notice these things in your marriage before it's too late.

Signs that divorce therapists look for, couple in marriage therapy antoniodiaz | Shutterstock

Well-trained marriage therapists who look for the signs of divorce have most likely studied the work of Drs. John and Julie Gottman. The Gottmans have done the most extensive research on marriage and what predicts divorce. He discovered four main predictors, which he terms the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" — criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.  All relationships have some of these, but if there's more than one present, a marriage therapist may have doubts about the longevity of the relationship.


Here are 4 tiny signs marriage therapists use to predict divorce:

1. Attacking the person, not the behavior

When criticizing, it's done in a way that implies something is wrong with you. It may include attacking your partner's personality or character, usually with the intent of making someone right and someone wrong. For example, using generalizations like "You always...", "You never...", "You're the type of person who...", or "Why are you so..." This often makes the person feel under attack, and in return, it provokes defensive reactions. This is a bad pattern as neither person feels heard and both may start to feel bad about themselves in the presence of the other. It's important to make a specific complaint about the behavior, not attack your partner's personality. For example, "When X happened, I felt Y, and I needed Z."


RELATED: 5 Tiny Signs You're Headed For A Divorce — You Just Don't Know It Yet

2. Feeling or expressing contempt toward your spouse

Contempt is any statement towards non-verbal behavior that puts you on a higher ground than your partner. This could be mocking your partner, calling him/her names, eye-rolling, hostile humor, hurtful sarcasm, sneering in disgust, etc. It involves attacking your partner's sense of self to insult or psychologically abuse him/her. This is the most serious of the four. Couples must work to eliminate such behaviors and build a culture of respect, appreciation, tolerance, and kindness in the relationship.

@brighterdaylaw Recognize the red flags! Eye-rolling, snapping, and yelling; these are signs of contempt in marriage and can lead to divorce. Unveil the hidden warnings and nurture a stronger, healthier relationship. 🚩💔 #brighterdaylaw #divorce #marriage #couples #lawyer #attorney #divorcesurvivor #contempt ♬ original sound - BrighterDayLaw

RELATED: The 4 Behaviors That Cause 90% Of All Divorces


3. Always being on the defensive (even if you don't realize it)

This is an attempt to defend yourself from a perceived attack with a counter-complaint. Another way is to act like a victim or whine. This can look like making excuses (e.g., external circumstances beyond your control forced you to act in a certain way). Saying things like "It's not my fault" or "I didn't ..." can also be cross-complaining, such as meeting your partner's complaint or criticism with a complaint of your own or ignoring what your partner said. 

Other no-nos are yes-butting (start off agreeing but end up disagreeing) or simply repeating yourself without paying attention to what the other person is saying. The best thing to do would be to try to listen from your partner's perspective. Slow down and realize that you do not have to be perfect. Try your best to have conscious communication. Speak the unarguable truth and listen generously. Also, validate your partner — let them know what makes sense to you about what they're saying, that you understand what they're feeling and that you can see things through their eyes.

RELATED: 15 Top Signs Of An Unhappy Marriage You Don't Want To Ignore

4. Stonewalling, shutting down, or walking out

This is withdrawing from the conversation and, essentially, the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. The stonewaller might physically leave or just completely shut down. Sometimes, this is an attempt to calm oneself when overwhelmed, but it's most often unsuccessful. People who do this may think they're trying to be "neutral" but stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, separation, disconnection, and/or smugness. Stonewalling can look like stony silence, monosyllabic mutterings, changing the subject, removing yourself physically, or the silent treatment. The antidote is to learn to identify the signs that you or your partner is starting to feel emotionally overwhelmed and to agree together to take a break and that the conversation will resume when you are both calmer.


Now that you know about the "Four Horsemen" and the signs of divorce, you can do more to mitigate these factors in your marriage.  Do you know that you need five times as many positive feelings and interactions as negative? This is the ratio at a minimum! After an argument, claim responsibility for your part. Ask yourself, "What can I learn from this?" and "What can I do about it?" Use what Gottman terms "repair attempts" during arguments that help to offset the tension. This may look like humor (used appropriately) or saying something like, "I'm sorry", "I hear you saying...", or "I understand."

Don't push buttons and don't escalate the argument. Start to recognize that all interactions are a self-perpetuating cycle that you can exit from. Someone gets triggered, someone reacts, the partner reacts to this, and so on. Slow things down and ask what you are feeling under the surface (like really hurt when you yelled in anger instead) and express that part of yourself. We can all learn and benefit from the Gottmans' research and if you still find the Four Horsemen are ruining your relationship, it's time to seek out a skilled marriage therapist.

RELATED: 11 Signs You're Going To Get Divorced (Before You Even Marry Him)


Dr. Marni Feuerman is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, relationship expert, and author of Ghosted and Breadcrumbed: Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart about Healthy Relationships.