According to Dr. John Gottman, there are 6 standout signs that show divorce is imminent. These signs don’t always mean the relationship is over. Rather, they’re a warning that the relationship is only heading one way unless something changes. Signs thattell your partner wants a divorce can be too hard to notice, if you’re not aware of them.
When the issue lies with you, you want to know how your behavior affects your connection with your partner. If problems stem from your significant other, you’ll need specific tools to resolve conflict in a way that strengthens your relationship.
For married couples, being able to spot these signs before they become fatal is crucial.
Signs your partner wants a divorce according to Gottman’s divorce predictors
Famous for being able to predict divorce with 90% accuracy, Gottman’s divorce predictors have saved many relationships. Couples who get the professional counseling they need as early as possible often right the ship before it’s too late.
If you think your marriage is still worth saving, it’s important to know these warning signs so you can act on them before it’s too late.
1. Initiating a discussion with a harsh startup
How you open a conversation sets the tone for everything that follows. While discussing issues is often frustrating, managing the emotional stakes is key to finding a healthy resolution. In couples’ counseling, a harsh startup is when a partner uses criticism and contempt to express themselves.
Pointing out the impact of a partner’s actions is an important part of making your feelings known. Conflict resolution can only happen if you’re honest about where the problems are. Moreso, partners need to take responsibility for their role in causing harm.
The problem is that a harsh startup leads with accusations that put the other person on the defensive. Their instinct becomes to protect themselves or throw blame back in the other direction. In both cases, honesty and accountability get pushed aside.
2. The Four Horsemen
Gottman method couples counseling tries to teach couples more than conflict resolution skills. While these skills are important when it’s time to deal with issues, addressing problematic behavior is just as valuable.
The Four Horsemen are four behavioral patterns that almost always create more conflict. More often than not, these are the habits that indicate a relationship is moving towards divorce. They include:
They don’t all have to be present at once, but they rarely appear in isolation. Like a chain reaction, one horseman can trigger another until couples become caught in a spiral.
Criticism and contempt often come up as a pair. Unlike voicing a valid complaint, criticism turns a discussion into a personal attack. It makes your partner the problem, not their behavior. An action can be addressed openly, but a character attack only creates contempt.
Both horsemen can also lead to the third – defensiveness. That’s because they create a hostile environment in the relationship, one where no one feels safe being vulnerable. When people feel unsafe, they look for ways to protect themselves.
This can frustrate you even as the partner with the valid critique. While the first three don’t have to appear in order, stonewalling is generally the last horseman to appear. It’s also the hardest to fix.
Stonewalling is when a partner completely withdraws and shuts down. It’s often a response to being overwhelmed by an interaction. A stonewalling partner will try to avoid conflict by any means. Their behavior can range from evasive to self-destructive.
Across the board, it leaves the other partner feeling isolated, frustrated, and ignored.
If a harsh startup is the worst way to start a conversation, flooding is one of the worst ways it can end. Similar to stonewalling, flooding happens when your partner overwhelms you with sudden and relentless negativity.
The shock of it can trigger a similar fight-or-flight response in you. Where stonewalling is a mental block that makes it hard to engage and communicate, flooding can cause a physical reaction.
A rapid heart rate, muscle tension, and erratic breathing all make it that much harder to communicate. Flooding hampers your ability to process and regulate emotions, making conflict-resolution impossible at the moment.
Creating a safe, soothing environment is the key to de-escalating and preventing a flooding response. This is what partners need to commit to if they both want to save the relationship. If the one triggering the response doesn’t address their behavior, the unhappiness will either persist or worsen.
4. Body language and physical reactions
Physical signs don’t always have to be as drastic as stonewalling and flooding. Subtle body language can tell you a lot about where your partner is mentally and emotionally. Smaller cues aren’t a sign that they’re fine. They can also be a manifestation of a much stronger internal reaction.
A spike in adrenaline can lead to elevated blood pressure and muscle tension. Your partner may try to relax with steady breathing or ball up to contain the reactions. In either case, you need to be aware of how they’re reacting to your words and actions.
If you have to rely on body language, it may also be a sign that your partner doesn’t feel safe. In a secure relationship where partners can be vulnerable, it’s easier to express discomfort. Withdrawing, self-containing, and masking can all be signs of wanting to disengage – from the conversation and relationship.
5. Meaningless, cyclical arguments
According to Dr. Gottman, the number one thing couples fight about is nothing. In his experience, many fights are meaningless and cyclical. They can start with petty arguments and end with hurt feelings, all without ever resolving.
With the Gottman method, the negative emotions underpinning these fights are where a couple’s focus should be. Small, bitter arguments add up over time, allowing contempt and resentment to fester.
To save a relationship, couples need to break the cycle of negativity. Dr. Gottman recommends using a positive perspective at every opportunity, one where partners:
- Mutually appreciate each other
- Share what they admire about each other
- Accept their flaws without justifying them
- Address specific issues as they come up
6. Lingering memories of bad experiences
When a repair attempt fails, it makes the underlying issue a problem when the next conflict comes up. When enough of these issues add up, and the relationship becomes untenable, you’re only left with bad memories.
How we end relationships can leave a lasting impression. It can change the way we view a failed marriage and the relationships that follow it. You can experience negativity even in a great relationship, but it’s usually more balanced.
A supportive partner and a history of working through struggles together leave a much more positive impression. These behaviors can save a marriage before it’s too late. If divorce is truly the best thing, these experiences can reinforce positive traits to look out for too.
Gottman’s divorce predictors aren’t absolute, but they are accurate. These may be signs your partner wants a divorce, but know that you are still in control of what will happen next. They don’t tell you the marriage is over, only that it can end if something doesn’t change. At the end of the day, couples therapy exists for those who want to take action and make a positive change.