The Main Reason Happy Marriages End in Divorce…

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Happy Couple

Justin Lavner and Thomas Bradbury of UCLA recently published an article that explored why some happy marriages end in divorce.  They assumed they’d find a connection between low commitment, negative communication, lack of support, low self-esteem, high levels of stress and divorce.  What they found, however, surprised them and the greater research community.

They invited 172 happily married newlywed couples to come discuss a topic they disagreed on for 10 minutes, while someone watched for good and bad communication skills.  At the end of 10 years of following these couples, about 15% of them were divorced.  When the researchers looked at the differences between couples who stayed together and couples who divorced, they found a few major differences.  Divorced couples had gotten married younger by about 2 years, the husband’s income was lower, the husbands’ parents were more likely to have been divorced, and most importantly, the couple had more negative communication in their marriage.

Negative Communication

Couples who are happy with their marriage from the time they get married can still fall prey to the ever increasing divorce rate if there’s too much negative communication in their marriage.  And interestingly enough, positive communication didn’t seem to bolster a marriage by nearly as much as negative communication damaged it.

So what exactly is “negative communication”?  The researchers saw behaviors such as anger, contempt, blame, invalidation, and disagreement when the couple was supposed to discuss and resolve an issue together.  They also witnessed one partner discouraging the expression of feelings, not supporting the other partner, and being pessimistic.   The scary thing is that these negative communication patterns are often there from the beginning, but if there’s a high level of commitment, good self-esteem, low stress-level, and balanced personalities, a couple can still feel happy in spite of these negative conversations.

This may be why the marital satisfaction scores stayed so high throughout all 10 years of the study.  These people might be really good at disconnecting from their reality in order to protect themselves, but after 10 years, the hurt can become too much.  Are you in a relationship where negative communication is a regular occurrence?  Are you sometimes the instigator of these damaging patterns?

We recommend taking the RELATE survey with your spouse to examine your relationship strengths and weaknesses, and open up the dialogue about where you want to improve so you don’t become another divorce statistic.  Additionally, most mental health counselors will be more than prepared to help you and your spouse work on your communication and resolve any past attachment injuries so your marriage can be stronger than ever.  (i.e. Marriage and Family Therapist, Social Worker, Clinical Psychologist, etc.)


Written by: Erin

Lavner, J. A., & Bradbury, T. N. (2012). Why do even satisfied newlyweds eventually go on to divorce?. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(1), 1-10. doi: 10.1037/a0025966


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