How to Divorce-Proof Your Relationship

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I am writing this article while flying over some spectacular snow-covered mountains in Northern BC. In fact, I just read that these mountains have been featured in Hollywood movies as substitutes for the Himalayas.The view is of large peaks and deep valleys. At the bottom of most of the deeper valleys are what appear to be relatively small streams and rivers. Actually, the rivers seem almost inconsequential and powerless in light of the mountains surrounding them. Yes, you probably guessed where I’m going with this. Over time, a small persistent stream can have a very significant impact on a mountain. Common knowledge, but how does this relate to divorce-proofing a relationship.

I will often see couples in therapy where problems have built up for so long that by the time they seek assistance they have developed some very ingrained, long-standing patterns of negativity and poor communication. According to psychologist Dr. John Gottman – a leading researcher of what contributes to marital difficulties – on average, couples wait 6 years after experiencing difficulties before seeking therapy. Usually, it is not one big issue – such as infidelity – that ultimately leads to separation and divorce. Rather, it is the small persistent negative interactions that are more likely to destroy a relationship. Another study – The California Divorce Mediation Project – found that approximately 80% of divorces were the result of couples becoming emotionally distant and drifting apart.

Gottman studied over 600 couples and the research has extended over 30 years. He was able to identify factors that could predict which couples divorced and which stayed together. He found that statistically, divorces tended to happen most frequently at two points – approximately 5 years and then at 16 years into a relationship. One hypothesis is that too much negative interaction has built-up over the first five years and at 16 years people are frequently emotionally disengaged and are essentially co-existing together without any significant emotional connection. In my experience, I have found that sometimes once the children are older and no longer as dependent – a relationship which was primarily “staying together for the kids” no longer has a reason to continue and at that point one or both will seek to end the relationship. Sometimes this comes as a shock to one party who “didn’t know it was that bad.”


~ approximately 80% of divorces were the result of couples becoming emotionally distant and drifting apart ~


According to Gottman, one consistent predictor of divorce is whether or not we tend to have positive or negative styles of interacting with each other. A positive interaction can be as simple as smiling, complimenting one another or expressing appreciation. A negative interaction can be an irritable or sarcastic remark, spending the evening watching separate televisions, criticizing or expressing contempt. The last point – contempt – Gottman calls “sulphuric acid for relationships” and is a significant predictor of divorce. Another interesting finding is if a disagreement is started in a combative and harsh manner – more than 90% of the time that is also how it will end. So if we start a discussion in a calm and soft manner – e.g., “This is not a big deal, but I would like to tell you how I feel before it builds up…” – it is more likely to end positively.

So, given that some negative interactions are bound to occur, how much positive versus negative interaction will divorce-proof our relationships? If we say or do something negative, should we then try to say one thing positive? Well, it would be a good start but you should probably keep going and do 5 positive interactions for every negative one. Gottman videotaped couples’ interactions and found that relationships that stayed together had a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. Interestingly, the relationships that eventually broke up actually were almost 1 to 1 (specifically 0.8 positive to 1 negative interaction). Why is it that we need to exhibit much more positive than negative behaviours for a healthy relationship? Well, it’s not exactly clear, however, one hypothesis is that we are hyper-vigilant or extra-sensitive to negative experiences. For example, if our ancestors thousands of years ago ate a yellow berry with black spots on it and then became violently ill for three days. It would be a pretty smart and adaptive thing to remember that “yellow black-spotted berries” were bad. The next time they saw a crop of the berries – even if it was years later – it would likely trigger the negative aversive memory of being ill and they would remember not to eat them. That is, we are very good at remembering threats to our physical safety – this is simply an adaptive survival mechanism.

Similarly, we are very good at remembering social, emotional and psychological threats or what we perceive to be threats. So when our partners are verbally hurtful, neglectful or critical, we are likely to raise our defenses and become extra-sensitive to future threats. Unfortunately, we may end up taking positive interactions for granted as they are less likely to seriously harm or kill us. Consequently, we will need more positives to offset the negatives. Actually, Gottman recommends up to a 20 to 1 ratio to offset negative interactions! Wow, that seems like an awful lot of work… but so is a messy divorce and years of loneliness, bitterness and bad relationships. At the risk of over-simplifying a complicated issue such as relationship health, generally, the idea is to re-orient your interactions with your partner and try to focus on sending and receiving more positives than negatives and slowly over time – like the stream – we are likely to build a healthier more ‘divorce-proof’ relationship. Finally, try this formula with your other relationships also – friends, family, co-workers and children – and you might be surprised to see that it actually works there as well.

Dr. Martin Phillips-Hing is a registered psychologist (#1361) with a private practice at Oakhill Counselling and Mediation Services in Abbotsford. Comments or questions can be sent to him via
[Posted on – February 16, 2009]

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