What Kinds of Happy Couples Eventually Get Divorced?

A new study identifies some traits of people whose marriages started off great but later fell apart. The warning signs? Poor communication, verbal aggression, and "inappropriate pessimism."

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Given the fact that a good number of marriages still end in divorce, understanding what factors are linked to divorce might actually help us predict it. And if these connections were understood early enough in the relationship - so that the skills needed to resolve the issues could be acquired in time - this might help avoid some divorces all together.

In a new study, the researchers followed 136 married couples who all reported being very satisfied in the first four years of their marriages. They questioned each spouse periodically over a period of 10 years, asking them to rate statements about marriage satisfaction, level of commitment, personality traits, stress levels, problem solving abilities, and how supportive they were with their partners. Some skills and traits were rated by the researchers, as the couples discussed relationship difficulties in the lab.

Couples who went on to divorce were more likely to be poorer communicators, and tended to display more negative emotions and support mechanisms than people who stayed married.

The couples who went on to divorce over the next ten years did not differ from the couples who stayed married in how happy or satisfied they said they were at the outset. But they did differ in other factors, largely having to do with how the partners communicated with and supported each other. Couples who went on to divorce were more likely to be poorer communicators, and tended to display more negative emotions and support mechanisms than people who stayed married.

For example, the couples who went on to divorce were more likely to use blame and invalidation in their communication efforts. They were more likely to discourage a spouse from expressing his or her feelings, and to display "inappropriate pessimism." Husbands who were more verbally aggressive early on were also more likely to be part of couples who went on to divorce later.

Though the study was small, it has some big implications. The communication and emotional issues seen at the outset of the marriages may contribute to the success of the marriage in the long run, and help predict it. Even more important is the idea that these significant interpersonal issues can exist despite the fact that partners simultaneously report being very satisfied with the marriage. This odd coexistence is one that married (and soon-to-be married) people and mental health experts should keep in mind.

Another new study explored the relationship between one's general level of life satisfaction and his or her satisfaction with marriage, and found that it's a two-way street. In fact, having more life satisfaction increased one's odds for a happy marriage, and improving one's marital satisfaction was linked to greater happiness in life. The take-home message of this study is that life satisfaction is not only a result of a happy marriage, but, in large degree, it can actually help predict it.

The take-home message of this second study is that life satisfaction is not only a result of a happy marriage, but, in large degree, it can actually help predict it.

Both studies point to the fact that when it comes to marital bliss, there are many variables at play besides how satisfied one feels about the relationship. The issues range from immediate (the tacks one takes when discussing issues with the spouse) to ultimate (how happy one is with one's own life).

Understanding the many factors that contribute to marriage satisfaction will surely help us find better and more effective ways to repair marriages before they fail.

The first study was carried out at UCLA, and the second study at the University of Denver. Both were published in the Journal of Family Psychology.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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