The #1 predictor of divorce – and how to eliminate it from your relationship

What’s the #1 predictor of divorce and how can you eliminate it from your relationship?

If you had to guess, what comes to mind? Lifestyle or temperamental differences? Inability to work through conflicts? Poor communication?

In research by the Gottmans, they found that poor communication is the #1 predictor of divorce – but more specifically, a certain type of poor communication:


Contempt is when you put your partner down. You speak to them like you’re superior to them. Contempt can be verbal but it can also be expressed in body language, like eye rolling or sneering. Sarcastically mocking your partner is contempt. Blaming your partner for all the problems in the relationship and taking no responsibility for your own part at all is contempt. 

When the Gottmans studied newlyweds, the presence of contempt in their communication was most strongly correlated with eventual divorce.

But the research gets even more interesting. If you’re contemptuous towards your partner, they are more likely to get physically, mentally and emotionally sick. That’s right: they’re more likely to come down with a disease. The stress of being treated with contempt actually decreases immune response.

Are you contemptuous towards your partner? Play back your internal video of a recent argument you had. Review what you said to your partner and how you said it. 

If you’re concerned you might struggle with a contemptuous attitude towards your partner, this is something you can change if you’re willing. Here’s how.

  1. Create a culture of appreciation.

    Practice noticing small things your partner does that you like or appreciate. Let your partner know that you’re noticing. Thank them. Express affection. This is called having a “positive habit of mind.” In the negative habit of mind, you only see what’s negative and discount the positive things your partner does. When you’re in that state of mind you’re more likely to become contemptuous. So, remember, the antidote: appreciate.

  2. Express your thoughts and feelings in words rather than acting on them.

    Let’s say you’re furious at your partner for forgetting to do the dishes yet again. You came home to a messy kitchen and you’re overwhelmed and exhausted. Instead of sneering at your partner and putting them down for forgetting, it’s much better to just say what you’re feeling using an “I” statement. So instead of “You’re a lazy slob,” say, “I feel so angry that the kitchen is so messy. I need you to help clean it up.”

Maybe you’re on the other side – your partner gets contemptuous towards you, and it hurts. Here’s a few ideas for how to work with that.

  1. Bring it to their attention.

    Ask them to read this article, or just summarize what you learned. Talk about how contempt impacts your relationship. Sometimes just being able to recognize and name the negative communication dynamic that’s happening between you can help things start to shift. Insight can go a long way.

  2. Express your own thoughts and feelings in the moment to give your partner a chance to repair the negative interaction.

    Let’s say they come at you with some harsh words and eye rolling. You can say, “I’m hurt by how you’re talking to me right now. Can you say that in another way?” This may not have a magical effect, but it’s definitely better than being contemptuous back at them, or getting defensive.

The Gottmans research found a few other negative communication patterns that predict problems in the relationship, too, including criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. Check back for my next blog post which will explore these in more depth.

If you and your partner want to work on your communication and strengthen your relationship, reach out for a free consultation or schedule one directly. I’d love to talk with you.