How to Predict Whether or Not a Couple Will Break Up

unrecognizable newlywed couple admiring mounts on wedding day

John Gottman is a legendary relationship researcher. He began using “The Love Lab” as his research centre at the University of Washington in 1986.

Here, he would have couples stay in the apartment at The Love Lab, and watch as they bring up an old topic that they would typically fight about. During this conflict, he would also film the couple and measure their vitals or physiological responses.

By 1992, Gottman became so accurate at predicting which couples would eventually divorce that he published a study on it. His findings successfully indicated with 91% accuracy which of the 57 couples would later break up after recording them deal with conflict for only five minutes.

How Do You and Your Partner Fight?

The main thing that Gottman realised was what we now know as conflict style. The average therapist will say that the most healthy conflict style is a validating or compromising conflict style. With this style, the partner will want to discuss the issue calmly and rationally, talk about how the couple can resolve the problem, and collaboratively develop an amicable solution that will work well for both parties.

bench man couple love

Now Gottman found that if both parties or people in a disagreement had this validating or compromising conflict style, it worked well and didn’t predict a later break up. It wasn’t the case if only one person was validating or compromising in their conflict style. If their partner was avoidant, volatile or passive-aggressive in their conflict style, this mismatch was more predictive of a later divorce. 

What might be surprising to therapists is that if both people were avoidant in their conflict style, their outcome tended to be no worse than if they were both validating. So if you prefer to only focus on the good and not discuss any of the issues in your relationship, you may not need to start bringing stuff up. Instead, it would be best if you found a partner who also prefers to sweep the bad things under the rug rather than discuss any problematic issues. However, if your partner needs to bring things up, you may need to, too, if you want your relationship to be happy and work out in the long run. 

Similarly, if your ideal conflict style is to be volatile and get everything off your chest regardless of how you say it, this can work if your partner wants to be volatile too. Again, you are likely to fare just as well as the validating or avoidant couples, and much better than if you prefer to be volatile and your partner does not. 

Which Conflict Style Is Ideal for Your Relationship?

It turns out that deciding upon which conflict style is likely to work best for you and your partner, and then both doing this is more important than figuring out which conflict style is best in general. For example, some relationships may work out precisely because the bad stuff is avoided and never discussed. Others may be passionate and work because each partner gets everything they think and feel off their chest. And another couple may work out because they chat about the important things without losing their temper and work together to come up with a solution while both choosing to let some of the more minor things go.

Whether you prefer to be avoidant, compromising or validating in how you manage conflict, try to see if you can get on the same page about how to best deal with disagreements with your partner. Being on the same team about how you want to try and manage fights will give you the best chance to maintain a happy and healthy relationship. On the other hand, if you can’t get on the same team about how you want to fight, Gottman’s research findings indicate that your different conflict styles are more than likely to be the end of your relationship one day.

wood love people woman

If you want to learn more, Gottman has some great books that I would highly recommend reading, including:

  • The Seven Principals for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert
  • Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love
  • The Man’s Guide to Women: Scientifically Proven Secrets from the “Love Lab” About What Women Really Want
  • The Relationship Cure: A 5-Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family and Friendships
  • The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples
  • Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Your Last

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

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