Divorce is never an easy decision. It’s often preceded by months or even years of marital tension, hurt feelings, and growing resentment. But there are certain communication habits that, according to research conducted by psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D., can increase the likelihood of a divorce. According to Dr. Gottman's research, criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt are four communication habits that can cause long-term damage to a marriage that can ultimately lead to divorce.
Criticism is a major problem in marriages, especially when it happens frequently. Criticism is different than expressing a need or making a complaint, as it implies that someone is wrong or bad at their core — the issue isn't just that something isn't working well. Instead, they're seen as being inadequate. Criticism tears down the relationship and creates distance between people. If not addressed, it can lead to increasing bitterness, foster a lack of respect, and make it more difficult to reconcile differences.
Defensiveness is also something that can cause serious problems in a marriage. Defensiveness implies that one partner feels attacked and is responding by reacting out of fear. Defensive responses often come across as mildly passive-aggressive and lead to a vicious cycle of criticism and defensiveness as each individual tries to protect themselves from potential attack. This behavior often shuts down communication, as couples are less willing to truly listen to and understand each other’s points of view.
Stonewalling is another communication habit that can lead to divorce. Stonewalling occurs when one partner shuts down emotionally and becomes unresponsive. It’s a strategy used to avoid difficult conversations and can lead the other partner to feeling neglected, disrespected and unheard. When stonewalling starts to take place, it can feel like a one-sided conversation and can create a sense of hopelessness in the relationship.
Finally, contempt is one of the most damaging behaviors that can occur in a marriage as it implies a fundamental lack of respect. Contemptuous responses include eye-rolling, mocking, name calling, insults and hostile humor. This behavior erodes trust and goodwill in the marriage and can make it very difficult for couples to resolve conflicts.
These four communication habits—criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt—can lead to long-term issues in a marriage that can ultimately result in divorce. Addressing these habits early on is key in order to ensure a strong, healthy marriage. Couples should strive to stay positive, maintain benevolent intentions toward their partner, and focus on constructive, respectful communication. If needed, couples can also seek counseling and therapy to help them understand the patterns in their communication, improve upon them, and learn alternative communication strategies that are more constructive and supportive of their relationship.