Why Some Couples Are Doomed to Split

... and what you need to watch out for.

Posted Feb 05, 2016

Source: jackf/Shutterstock

There are many reasons why couples divorce, the most common being issues with infidelity, trust, and conflict.1 But when are these marital problems most likely to arise? There are three compelling possibilities.2

1. The enduring dynamics model.

One possibility is that the problems that lead to divorce are there all along and just take time to come to a head. For example, a couple may have a long-standing pattern of conflicts stemming from the husband’s frivolous spending habits. But at a certain point, things become unbearable. If this is true, it suggests that marriages that are ultimately headed down the road to divorce start out more troubled than stable unions.

2. The emergent distress model.

Another scenario is that the problems that drive couples apart are new and stem from issues that only emerge later in the relationship. For example, conflicts over how to raise a child may not surface until the couple is starting to raise a family. This would suggest that when they first marry, there are no real differences between couples that stay together and those who divorce.

3. The disillusionment model.

Another possibility is that unrealistic expectations are what lead to divorce. Couples that start out with an unrealistically rosy view of how wonderful and romantic their marriages will be more likely to be disappointed as time goes on. In all marriages, it is typical for intense passionate feelings to fade over time, while a strong sense of trust, intimacy, and commitment can endure. Some people may take this decline in passion harder than others, especially if they had unrealistic expectations to begin with.

The evidence.

In an impressive longitudinal study, Huston and colleagues tracked 168 couples that wed in 1981 (mostly Caucasian, from varied backgrounds, but primarily working-class) for 13 years.2 One-third of the couples divorced during that time, and another 20% reported being unhappy in their marriages. Consistent with the enduring dynamics model, couples that were troubled at the start of their marriages were more likely to be dissatisfied down the road. Unhappy couples were less kind, tender, and generous to their partners early in their marriage. They also tended to be more ambivalent about their partners and uncertain about the marriage going in. So the doubts and problems they had when their marriages began continued to plague them over time.

In another large-scale longitudinal study, Lavner and colleagues tracked 169 couples that married in 2001 (primarily Caucasian and middle-class) for four years.3 Every six months, the couples reviewed a list of potential problem areas (e.g., in-laws, showing affection) and rated how much each was an issue in their relationship. The researchers found that the level of marital problems was stable over time. This suggests support for the enduring dynamics model, at least when predicting satisfaction among couples that stay together.

What about couples that divorce?

In the 13-year study by Huston and colleagues, those couples that were troubled to begin with were not the most likely to ultimately get divorced. The couples most likely to divorce were those that experienced the biggest change in satisfaction over time, supporting the disillusionment model. Thus, the perception that the relationship had gotten worse was a better predictor of who got divorced than the overall quality of the relationship. Couples that divorced quickly (within six years) tended to be less satisfied initially. When the usual declines in satisfaction set in, things got really bad, and quickly led these couples to part ways. However, often the couples that divorced later (after seven or more years) were the happiest and most affectionate at the outset. Couples that started out with the most idyllic relationships had the farthest to fall.

Huston and colleagues also found that members of couples that divorced didn’t show big changes in their own negative behavior toward their partners (such as hostility or criticism), or their reports of how badly their partners behaved. This suggests that the emergent distress model was not a good predictor of divorce. If problems surfaced over time, then we would expect to see more negativity over time. Instead, couples showed a decline in the positive, rather than a rise in the negative. However, that study only addressed the presence of negative behaviors, not the presence of specific problems. It is possible that couples that do not experience changes in overt behaviors toward each other, such as how often they criticize or yell at a partner, still experience an increase in the number of problems in their relationships. New problems can arise without necessarily causing partners to behave badly toward one another. For example, problems with your in-laws could worsen after the birth of a child, but that might not lead you to directly criticize or otherwise abuse your partner.

Another study, focusing specifically on low-income couples, surveyed 431 newlywed couples. It also examined the presence of relationship problems in a subset of 40 participants who had gotten divorced within the first four years of marriage.4 Each year, the couples were interviewed about problems in their marriage. Women were more likely than men to note a problem early in their marriage that they ultimately cited as a reason for their divorce. Many of the problems couples cited as reasons for divorce they also mentioned as problems early in the marriage. However, it was also very common for the problems that led to divorce to be new problems that were not identified in the first interview, and there was a tendency for these emerging problems to become more severe over time. This suggests that there is evidence for both the enduring dynamics and emergent distress models among this small group of early divorcers.

The takeaway

The research suggests that couples that are unhappy to begin with remain unhappy, but don’t necessarily divorce. However, if that unhappiness leads to the emergence of new problems or an initial drop in satisfaction, it may set them down the road to divorce within the first several years of marriage. On the other hand, couples that are relatively happy may also divorce if they perceive a big decline in satisfaction, with these divorces happening relatively late (seven or more years after marriage). So both the overall quality of the relationship and the change in quality are important factors.

Staying happily married can be a difficult task, but these studies suggest some broad strategies that couples can take:

  • First, you should be on the lookout for new problems as they emerge and try to deal with them before they get out of hand.
  • Second, you should be prepared for the natural decline in satisfaction that most couples experience and try to have realistic expectations at the start of your marriage.

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior, and read more of her articles on Close Encounters.


1 Scott, S. B., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Allen, E. S., & Markman, H. J. (2013). Reasons for divorce and recollections of premarital intervention: Implications for improving relationship education. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 2, 131–145.

2 Huston, T. L., Caughlin, J. P., Houts, R. M., Smith, S. E., & Geroge, L. J. (2001). The connubial crucible: Newlywed years as predictors of marital delight, distress, and divorce. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 237-252.

3 Lavner, J. A., Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (2014). Relationship problems over the early years of marriage: Stability or change? Journal of Family Psychology, 28, 979–985.

4 Williamson, H. C., Nguyen, T. P., Bradbury, T. N., & Karney, B. R.  (2015).  Are problems that contribute to divorce present at the start of marriage, or do they emerge over time? Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Published online before print, doi: 10.1177/0265407515617705