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The Feeling That Most Strongly Predicts Divorce

Within 7 years, uncertainty and instability can force a split.

Key points

  • Ambivalence means the simultaneous presence of positive and negative feelings toward a person or relationship.
  • A new study concludes that current ambivalence is associated with divorce many years later.
  • Research also suggests ambivalence correlates with lower marriage satisfaction in couples who stay together.
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Ambivalence refers to the presence of both positive and negative evaluations of a person or relationship. It is prevalent in close and intimate relationships (e.g., girlfriend/boyfriend, husband/wife).

Ambivalence is associated with significant stress. Why? Perhaps because feeling both love and hate toward a close other causes uncertainty about the stability and future of the relationship.

Could these feelings of doubt and anxiety predict breakup and separation? Yes, according to recent research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

The study, by Surjadi et al. concluded that ambivalence is associated with significant marital conflict and is predictive of divorce seven years later.

Investigating Relationship Ambivalence as a Predictor of Divorce

Data used in this research came from a sample of couples with young adult children who had participated in the Iowa Midlife Transition Project (MTP).

These families were initially part of the Iowa Youth and Family Project (IYFP), which included 451 married couples with a child in the seventh grade.

The present investigation used data collected between 1994 (when the children were in the 12th grade) and 2001.

Sample: Three hundred seventy heterosexual couples and their families; mean age of 43 years old for wives and 45 years for husbands; all Caucasian; married for an average of 23 years.

Measures (sample items in parentheses)

  • Marital Ambivalence: Four items (How often does your spouse make you feel he/she really cares about you?).
  • Marital conflict: Assessed based on reports from the couples’ adult children (How often would you say your parents argue or disagree with each other?).
  • Marital satisfaction: Two items asking how happy and satisfied both romantic partners were with the marriage.
  • Marital instability: The five-item short form of the Marital Instability Index (Have you discussed divorce or separation with a close friend?).
  • Divorce: Whether the couple separated.

Ambivalence predicts marital conflict and divorce.

Analysis of the data showed:

Shared ambivalence “predicted divorce seven years later through its association with couples’ marital conflict.”

Compared to those who stayed together, “spouses who eventually divorced were more ambivalent toward each other and had greater marital conflict.”

The negative effects of ambivalence were present even in spouses who chose to stay together. Indeed, shared ambivalence correlated with “greater marital conflict and lower couple-level marital satisfaction.”

At the individual level, wives’ and husbands’ own ambivalence (rather than their partners’ or shared ambivalence) was associated with worse assessments of marriage, such as reduced happiness, lower marriage satisfaction, and a greater desire to end the relationship.

These findings agree with the socioemotional selectivity theory, which suggests that as we age, our goals change, and we become more selective.

Specifically, older people pursue:

  • fewer future-focused goals (e.g., making new friends)
  • more present-focused goals (e.g., meaningful interactions with one’s partner).

Such increased selectivity tends to require disengaging from romantic relationships that are ambivalent and associated with conflict and distress.


Feelings of ambivalence in marriage are predictive of relationship conflict and divorce, and in couples who do not separate, they are predictive of lower happiness and marital satisfaction.

Given these findings, it would be wise to screen married clients for ambivalence and, as necessary, provide interventions at the individual and couple levels:

At the individual level, therapists can teach husbands and wives how to identify their own ambivalent feelings and use effective strategies to manage them.

Therapists could address shared ambivalence at the couple level, helping couples become more confident in their shared decision-making.

This is important because there is significant interdependence between how ambivalent husbands and wives report feeling; this may result from spouses reinforcing each other’s views, feelings, and behaviors (e.g., the push-pull dynamic). For instance, one partner becoming ambivalent may push the other partner who was already ambivalent toward ending the relationship.

A third way therapists can help is by teaching couples effective conflict resolution skills since the ability to resolve marital conflicts (e.g., through engaging in positive and cooperative behaviors) predicts marital satisfaction.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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