• Monique Harding

Can we predict separation and divorce? YES! 5 signs your relationship could benefit from a ‘tune up'

It turns out that relationship separation isn’t actually that much of a shock. Well, not to the finely tuned eye of a Relationship Counsellor anyway. Ongoing longitudinal research in the area of relationships has suggested that there are a number of predictors for future separation, divorce or continued couple misery.

Here's FIVE of the signs your relationship could benefit from a ‘tune up’;

1. More negativity than positivity

The presence of positive affect during conflict discussions (as well as in everyday life) is critical to relationship satisfaction. During conflict, the ratio of positive to negative interactions for couples in stable relationships is 5:1. In couples headed for separation or divorce it drops significantly to 0.8:1.

2. Escalation of unhelpful communication patterns

“Ugh! You never clean up after yourself. I have asked you a million times to wash your coffee cup after you’ve finished. Seriously, how hard is it?”

Sound familiar? You criticise and your partner gets defensive. They shut down and you get louder. You cry and they walk out the door. You return together eventually, a lot calmer, have a brief 'I'm sorry, let's never fight again' and move on with things. Well, until the next issues pops up.

Criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling are detrimental to relationship. These are part of the pattern of escalating negativity. Historically, Relationship Therapists would get couples in a room and let them openly ‘air their grievances’. We are now much wiser and know that it is the way that conflict discussions are dialogued that holds the key to deeper understanding and compromise.

3. Failure of repair attempts

Most couples in therapy present with a handful of ‘stuck points’. It might be a past incident that comes up every time they fight or one particular event from many years ago that they just haven’t been able to bounce back from. On average, it takes 6 years for a couple to seek therapy. There is often a lot of past hurt and disappointment that has been neglected or ignored. Couples get gridlocked on these ‘stuck points’ and it often requires attuned therapeutic support to move forward and get back on track.

The goal of couples counselling is not to help couples to avoid fights. Neither is it to help couples to avoid hurting one another’s feelings. A key goal of couples counselling is to help couples process the inevitable conflicts that we all encounter in day to day life. The counselling process supports the processing of past hurts and regrettable incidents.

4. Emotional disengagement and withdrawal

To be in a healthy, successful relationship is to feel connected, excited, supported and valued. A key indicator of future separation is the increasing ‘turning against’ of a partner’s bids for emotional connection. Overall, there may be a marked lack of shared humour, question asking, active interest and empathy.

5. Negative sentiment override

This term was originally coined by Robert Weiss (1980) who described negative sentiment override as a discrepancy between insider and outsider perceptions of the interaction.

Practically, think of it as; your partner brings home flowers after work… instead of thinking “what a lovely gesture” and feeling loved and connected; your default thoughts head towards “what’s he/she up to?”. It's seeing your couples behaviour (regardless of it being negative or positive) through a negative lens.

This often presents due to a deterioration in the couples friendship. Specifically, the quality of their love maps and knowledge of each’s internal world, desires, dreams, stresses and goals.

If you feel that your relationship could benefit from a 'tune up', I'd love to chat. You can reach me at my Gold Coast practice, Ritual Counselling and Family Therapy here.

The above indicators come from Dr John and Julie Gottman and Bob Levinson’s longitudinal research across over 30 years in there US based lab. Both heterosexual and same sex couples participated in the study alongside couples from various cultural backgrounds and of various ages. You can read more about these studies at The Gottman Institute Website.

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