How to Predict If You'll Get Divorced

Filed under: Divorce & Custody, Relationships

charlie sheen brooke mueller divorce picture

Charlie Sheen has filed for divorce from his third wife, Brooke Mueller, citing irreconcilable differences. The couple were married in May 2008 and have two children. Credit: Ethan Miller, Getty Images

How you argue with your spouse can actually predict if you'll have a long marriage or a quickie divorce. While newlyweds who yell or call each other names have a far higher chance of getting divorced, there is one particularly toxic way to argue that can spell an early end to a marriage: One person deals with the conflict constructively, while the other withdraws.

Here's the scenario: A couple begins to argue. The husband calmly discusses the situation, listens to his wife's point of view and tries hard to find out what she is feeling. And then the wife withdraws, stomps out of the room and won't speak to him.

"This pattern seems to have a damaging effect on the longevity of marriage," says lead study author Kira Birditt of the University of Michigan. "Spouses who deal with conflicts constructively may view their partners' habit of withdrawing as a lack of investment in the relationship rather than an attempt to cool down."

The team used data from the Early Years of Marriage Study, which is one of the largest and longest research projects on the patterns of marital conflict. Over a 16-year period, 373 couples were interviewed four times. The interviews began in the first year of marriage, which was 1986 for all of them.

For this study, the University of Michigan researchers examined how both individual behaviors and patterns of behavior between partners affected the likelihood of divorce. They also examined whether behavior changed over time and whether there were racial or gender differences in behavior patterns and outcomes.

The shocking results: Even though 29 percent of husbands and 21 percent of wives reported having no conflicts at all during the first year of marriage in 1986, 46 percent had divorced by year 16 of the study, which was 2002. Interestingly, whether or not couples reported any conflict during the first year of marriage did not affect whether they had divorced by the last year studied.

Overall, husbands reported using more constructive behaviors and fewer destructive behaviors than wives. But over time, wives were less likely to use destructive strategies or withdraw, while husbands' use of these behaviors stayed the same through the years.

"The problems that cause wives to withdraw or use destructive behaviors early in a marriage may be resolved over time," Birditt said. "Or, relationships and the quality of relationships may be more central to women's lives than they are to men. As a result, over the course of marriage, women may be more likely to recognize that withdrawing from conflict or using destructive strategies is neither effective nor beneficial to the overall well-being and stability of their marriages."

Birditt also found that black couples were more likely to withdraw during conflicts than were white couples, although black couples were less likely to withdraw from conflict over time.

The study findings were published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

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