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The Most Powerful Predictors of Divorce

... and how men and women see them differently.

Key points

  • Some problems exist at the beginning of the marriage, while others develop over time.
  • Husbands and wives may perceive problems differently, especially the ones that lead to divorce.
  • Early warning signs provide an opportunity to work through problems before they threaten the relationship.
vetonethemi on Pixabay
Source: vetonethemi on Pixabay

Some couples announce separation to the absolute surprise of friends and family. (“They seemed to be so happy!”) For others, a divorce announcement is not “news” to anyone. Everyone sadly, saw it coming. In every case, however, a marriage does not begin with the end in mind—at least not in this lifetime as couples vow “till death do we part.” This optimistic view assumes that couples can work through problems if they see them soon enough. But can they? Research has some interesting answers.

Red Flags That Predict Divorce

Hannah C. Williamson et al. (2016) examined whether problems that contribute to divorce are present from the beginning of the marriage, or evolve over time.[i] They distinguish between problems existing at the beginning of the marriage, which they refer to as the enduring dynamics model, and those that develop over time, referred to as the emergent distress model.

What kind of problems? Williamson et al. share that an analysis of retrospective reports studying a national sample of divorced people reveals that reasons for dissolution include incompatibility, infidelity, drug use or drinking, and growing apart. Problems identified as major contributors to divorce included infidelity, lack of commitment, and conflict.

Are Early Red Flags More Visible to Husbands or Wives?

In their research questioning 40 divorced individuals about the reasons for the divorce, Williamson et al. found support for an emergent distress model for wives who saw problems that led to divorce increasing over time. Husbands indicated that they were less perceptive to problems in a more general sense, which suggests that wives are better at predicting relationship problems. Their findings replicated prior research in identifying communication problems and infidelity/trust as common problems in dissolved marriages, and extended research findings by identifying wives as more sensitive to relationship problems than husbands, and also more likely to notice problems becoming worse over time, which supports the emergent distress model.

Williamson et al. note that in only 1 of 13 instances, husbands perceived a relational problem at the beginning of the marriage that they describe as contributing to their divorce. In contrast, wives perceived 7 of 13 problems they later described as leading to their divorce as significantly higher during their relationship. Apparently, given the gender-specific results, Williamson et al. note that spouses monitor their relationships differently. They observe that women not only see more relational problems, but they are also more likely to recognize the ones that predict relational dissolution.

Turning Red to Green

Williamson et al. suggest that interventions can benefit from concentrating on problems identified by wives, and also highlights the need to integrate information gathered both before and after divorce with the goal of preventing marital dissolution. And communication is a two-way street. Regardless of who spots them first, early relational warning signs provide an opportunity to work through problems before they threaten the relationship, turning suspected red flags into green lights for success.

Facebook image: Yavdat/Shutterstock


[i] Williamson, Hannah C., Teresa P. Nguyen, Thomas N. Bradbury, and Benjamin R. Karney. 2016. “Are Problems That Contribute to Divorce Present at the Start of Marriage, or Do They Emerge over Time?” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 33 (8): 1120–34. doi:10.1177/0265407515617705.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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