Some researchers studying marriage and divorce say there are distinct clues to a couple’s chances of a future divorce that can be found in the way they talk to each other. Research has shown that when a discussion starts out on a harsh and negative note, it will also end on a negative note, despite any attempts to patch things up between arguments. A negative start indicates a couple is already having difficulty with their relationship and criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling are sure to follow.
A negative start that takes the form of criticism is all too common in many relationships. If spouses are extremely critical of each other, it can lead to more serious problems like outright contempt. Contempt can also take the form of sarcasm and cynicism, and can be deadly to a relationship as it leads to more conflict. Contempt is often propelled by long-simmering grievances leading to negative thoughts about a partner. If the differences are not resolved, the complaints can turn into criticisms, which produce more negative feelings and thoughts, until one spouse is completely fed up and the marriage is history. Contempt can also result in belligerence, which is another form of aggressive anger in a relationship.
As the conversations and communication in a marriage become negative and critical, it can naturally cause a person to become defensive. Defensiveness escalates the conflict, and the more defensive one becomes, the more the other spouse will continue to attack. It is easy to see that in a climate of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness, nothing gets resolved and a marriage can get into serious trouble very quickly.
In marriages where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, it is not uncommon for one spouse to simply tune their partner out and begin a pattern of stonewalling for self-defense in the relationship. More common among men than women, stonewalling is an attempt to avoid fighting by not paying attention. There is no feedback when stonewalling and the offending person usually acts like they can’t hear or don’t care about what their spouse has to say at all. Stonewalling is less common among newlywed couples and usually occurs later in a marriage after resentments have had more time to build. It can take a few years for the negativity in a relationship to become so overwhelming that stonewalling eventually becomes a repeatable pattern of behavior, usually for the husband.
Beyond the negative tone of conversation between spouses, it is possible to predict a divorce simply by looking at the physiological changes a person experiences during those tense discussions. It’s not hard to see just how physically distressing the negativity is when the heart speeds up, the adrenaline kicks in and the blood pressure rises. The changes are so dramatic that if the negativity in constant and ongoing, it’s easy to predict that a couple will eventually resort to divorce as a remedy.
The more often a spouse feels overwhelmed by criticism and contempt, the more often they will think about protecting themselves from more onslaughts by disengaging themselves emotionally from the relationship. The combination of negative communication along with the presence of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling in a relationship are usually very good indicators of an impending marriage meltdown.