No two marriages end in the same way. But when looking at the larger picture, patterns emerge. And, prior to divorce, there are some key factors that stand out more than others. That is why we spoke to a variety of relationship experts and therapists and asked them this one question: What, according to what you’ve noticed, is the most common predictor of divorce? The professionals to whom we spoke responded with everything from failures of accountability to issues of contempt to a slow erosion of trust. They’re worth hearing out because they offer a chance to learn from the mistakes of others and take measures to prevent any of them from seeping into your marriage.
Failing to Take Accountability for One’s Own Flaws
Marriage is easy when the sex is hot, the money is rolling in, and the kids are getting straight A’s. “But when the going gets rough, that’s when people either retreat to their own corners, declare war, collapse into tears, or abandon ship,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a family therapist in Beverly Hills. This often boils down to an unwillingness to love the other person while accepting their flaws and failing to acknowledge your own. “It’s easy to look at our partners versus looking at ourselves as the problem,” she says. “The key to all successful relationships is accountability, and that means having the courage to look within yourself, examine and own up to your own part of the equation.”
In a Word, Contempt
As one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen, contempt is well recognized as a potent relationship neurotoxin. Naturally, it’s among the most common predictors of breakups, says psychologist Tanisha M. Ranger. “When you’re treating your partner with disdain, disrespect, mocking, being sarcastic,” those are very bad signs, she says. “You’re placing all the problems in the relationship squarely at their feet, like it’s all their fault and their doing.” This often leads to an accusation that the other person is irredeemably screwed up, which erases the possibility that they will be able to do anything to rectify the problem, Ranger says. “Then this person can’t stick around and try to work on the relationship.”
Forsaking One’s Spouse for the Children
Yet another reason not to be a helicopter parent: They’re often too busy hovering over their smothered children to pay sufficient attention to their marriage. “Child-rearing is about teaching children to walk and eventually walk away. But these folks don’t believe that, and stroke their egos by never letting their kids go,” says David Ezell, clinical director of Connecticut-based Darien Wellness. “As a result, one or both of them forget about their partner,” he says, instead of sneaking out to go bowling, get tiramisu and dessert wine, make out at the drive-in, or whatever horny couples do these days.
Compromise Is Not a Second Language
It’s trite — and true: Compromise is among the most important dynamics in any relationship. What that does not mean is that just one person does all the compromising, and the other does none. “One person should not always get their way in a relationship,” says Kimberly Hershenson, a relationship therapist in New York City. “It should be a give-and-take in which you sometimes meet in the middle,” she says. “Every healthy relationship involves compromise, but if values or beliefs are too different and neither party is willing to compromise, it may be a sign the relationship is not working.”
Not Accepting That Your Spouse’s Feelings Are Different From Your Own, and That’s Okay
You might share offspring, a bed, taxes, and the herpes simplex virus, but you and your spouse don’t need to share a brain. Just because you think and feel something doesn’t mean your spouse must think and feel the same things, says marriage and family therapist Lesli Doares. “When we love someone we see the differences as conflict. They’re not always conflicts. Differences are natural.” In a marriage, the key is to figure out which differences are worth trying to resolve, Doares says. Your spouse folding towels in a manner other than how you prefer them folded is not worth resolving. They’re just towels. It’s fine.
Having Unrealistic Expectations of Your Partner
How much can you realistically expect from one person? “Couples divorce when they are disenchanted and disappointed to discover their partner won’t complete them, fill in the holes in their soul, and make their life better,” says relationship coach Rosalind Sedacca. Problem is, when people search for someone else, they’re liable to ultimately find that their other love interests are similarly inadequate. “In a good relationship, couples can complement one another, but not complete the other. So it’s an endless cycle of failed relationships based on erroneous, unrealistic expectations.”
The Slow Erosion of Trust
“The erosion of trust that your partner has your best interests at heart slowly kills relationships,” says Pam Mirehouse, a certified divorce coach. Put another way, it’s the feeling that your partner no longer has your back. “Every time one person puts others ahead of their partner on their priority list, the relationship erodes slightly and over time the slights add up to disconnection. It is the little things like listening, being there through the big things as well as the little things that keep a relationship healthy.”