Tell-Tale Signs Of Trouble: Predicting Divorce

It’s not that hard to predict divorce.

It’s actually fairly easy.  What’s hard is recognizing when you are in the “danger zone” and, harder still, to do something about it.  Just because you have the symptoms of a troubled marriage does not mean there is no cure.  Couples therapy, workshops, retreats, books, and even helpful family members can be among the resources used to turn things around. But a diagnosis comes first.

How do you know when you’re marriage is in big trouble?  Marital researcher John Gottman has done the work for you.  He has found that there are some tell-tale signs he calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that couples display when they are headed for divorce.  What are they?

  1. Criticism
  2. Defensiveness
  3. Contempt
  4. Stonewalling

Predictors of Trouble

These four behaviors have all been identified as evidence that a couple is more likely to be headed for divorce court.  And it’s not hard to see why.  These behaviors indicate that a couple is unable to manage and work through conflict in a constructive way.  Because of that, they fall into behaviors that actually work against them, leading to a downward slope in relationship quality.

But there is hope. Each “horseman” has it’s antidote.


Most people know that criticism hurts when they are on the receiving end, but they may not know how to get their complaint across without it.  Using a “gentle start up” and learning to bring up a problem without attacking the character of the person you’re talking to makes a huge difference.


This goes hand in had with criticism.  When someone is criticized, it’s natural to defend yourself.  However, if it becomes an automatic response to any complaint, defensiveness can stand in the way of getting important feedback on your behavior.  The antidote to this is taking responsibility.  If you can find what you are doing that is bothering your partner, even if you had good intentions and reasons for it, you can have an open dialogue toward problem solving.


This is when you look down on and show disrespect for your partner as a person.  This is actually the worst of the “Four Horsemen” and is considered by Gottman to be the best predictor of divorce.  The antidote is crucial:  describing your OWN feelings and needs and focusing on yourself rather than describing your partner.  For instance, saying “I am overwhelmed with work and need help” rather than “You are lazy and selfish.”


The dreaded silent treatment.  This is when you wall your partner off with your distance, silence and non-responsiveness.  Some couples go days, weeks, even longer where there is no communication.  Or someone may just avoid talking about particular issues entirely.  What the recipient of “stonewalling” may not know is that this behavior is a way for some people to calm their emotions.  They are avoiding because it is so distressing, not because they don’t care.  The antidote is for the person who engages in stonewalling to learn to self-soothe their own anxieties and calm themselves, so they can learn to tolerate conflict and resolve problems.

The Way Forward

Couples who find they have one or more of these “horsemen” usually need help.  If they knew how to manage or resolve problems better, they would already be doing it.  Unfortunately, for many people they don’t even recognize the warning signs until it’s gotten nearly intolerable.  However, marital research has not only gotten good at understanding how and why couples have trouble.  The research has also shown how to turn things around and help couples to heal and grow their relationships.  Those who specialize in couples therapy have the tools to help people overcome these problems and learn new, healthy patterns of communicating.

margie-bioMargie Wheelhouse is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  She provides online and phone counseling in Springfield, Chicago and throughout Illinois.  She helps couples build great relationships and repair broken ones. Contact her today to strengthen your relationship.