These 4 early signs of divorce predict a split with over 90% accuracy (but our experts share ways to avoid it)

Divorce isn't a bad word, sometimes it's what's needed for two people to be happy

Conceptual image of a man and a woman standing next to each other, and walking away from the camera.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

No one gets married thinking they’re destined for divorce, and deciding whether you’re in a broken marriage beyond repair or not doesn't come easily. 

But, life can create a marriage and it can break one. Whether you’re in the thick of it surviving matrescence, and breastfeeding, or navigating exactly how to explain the mental load to your partner - all these external factors create an impact on you as a couple. Maybe you’ve been living in a sexless marriage for some time now and, no matter how many times you try to spice up your relationship, you just can’t see it working. The divorce rate in the UK was sat at 42%, according to a 2023 study, so you’re not alone if you think you're heading this way. 

Editor's note

If you’re worried that you may be headed for divorce we recommend reaching out to relationship counsellors for third party support.

While divorce has become more common, many relationships do survive, even if one or both have taken steps to see a divorce lawyer. Family lawyer Stuart Clark from Rayden Solicitors tells us; "[family lawyers] are here to help separating spouses make their own decisions. We are not here to make those decisions for them. Some go on to separate and divorce. Others have remained together. Meeting with a family lawyer might be part of the therapeutic exercise of assessing options, or it can be done with the full intention of separating and divorcing. There is not one hard and fast rule for each divorce is unique."

In this article, we talk to family lawyers and look at the four early signs that you might be headed for divorce and also share the expert, Dr Gottman's advice, on how to avoid it.

Early signs of divorce

  1. Harsh set up
  2. The Four Horsemen
  3. Flooding
  4. Not repairing

Four common communication pitfalls can often mean a couple is headed for divorce with over 90% accuracy, according to research from John Gottman, Ph.D. Dr Gottman’s list of traits is derived from seven different studies he’s done on the topic. These studies included three types of couples, those who divorced, those who remained together and were happy, and those who remained together but were not happy. It was from these studies, Dr Gottman found that couples that eventually get divorced tend to have conversations about conflicts with one or more of the following features:

1. Harsh setup

Sarcasm, mocking, taking the mick out of your partner. 'Harsh setup' is a one-line explainer to describe when a conversation to resolve conflict doesn't start in the best way. If a conversation starts this way, it's likely not going to end well as both parties will be on the defensive. According to Dr Gottman, you can predict the way a conversation will go 96% of the time based just on the initial three minutes. It turns out that the prediction often holds for the marriage, too. If conversations seem to regularly start like this between you and your spouse, it might be time to seek some relationship support.

2. The Four Horsemen

Dr Gottman likens the progression of a doomed conversation to the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which look like this;

  1. Criticism ("You always do..")
  2. Contempt (can look like mocking and eye-rolling)
  3. Defensiveness (sounds like bringing up the past or accusing the other person of doing the same thing)
  4. Stonewalling (the other person withdraws, shuts down, ignores you)

These four signs happening in your marriage are a cry for help. Here we talk in more detail about the four horsemen and how these behaviours can spell disaster for any relationship.

3. Flooding

Flooding is kind of what it sounds like; a sensation of feeling psychologically and physically overwhelmed during conflict, making it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion. Dr Gottman noticed in his research that when couples' conflict escalates it is not only their words, tone, and volume that escalate, it is also their heart rates and the amount of stress hormones being secreted. In other words, any sort of reasonable response to what’s going on goes out the window and suddenly you’re down the rabbit hole of negative thoughts and extreme feelings - both emotionally and physically - that make it impossible for you to stay grounded, making productive conversations almost impossible.

4. Not attempting to repair

Ah, an oldie but a goodie, arguments and 'the Four Horsemen' don't tend to lead to divorce overnight. One of the reasons Dr Gottman can predict divorce when he sees these things happening early on is because he also assesses the patterns their disagreements tend to take. The most important aspect for predicting whether or not the marriage will end is the attempts the couple makes at de-escalating tension. Failure to do so is a reliable sign divorce is in their future.

Sexless marraige two men laughing

(Image credit: Getty Images)

While each divorce is unique, Stuart talks about the signs that many clients share with him when they take the first steps toward divorce; "It may be that the spouses have drifted apart and stopped sharing their day, have lost the feeling of sharing the joys and the pitfalls of daily life. Every relationship has its ups and downs, and it is usually when the downs become more permanent than they are temporary that the relationship may be heading for separation."

How to save your marriage - Dr Gottman's top three tips

If reading this article makes you feel a bit anxious because you recognised one or more of those traits in your marriage, take heart, all couples go through tough times. Here Dr Gottman shares his top three tips on changes to make in your marriage to save it;

  1. Turn toward one another
  2. Solve solvable problems
  3. Build and follow love maps

Turn toward one another - Sounds so simple, right? But many couples don't do this (perhaps subconsciously) And, according to Dr Gottman, conversational patterns play a big role in a couple’s level of happiness. Physically facing each other produces expressions of interest and acknowledgment that beat out conversational tricks. So, next time you know you're going to be having a conversation that might go down the conflict route, take a stance that faces your partner with open arms and body language.

Solve solvable problems -
In short, this means, don't set yourselves up for failure. Dr Gottman recommends five tactics for couples to use to find a compromise.

  • Begin with a soft start, so that the conversation leads to a good result
  • Offer and respond to attempts at repairing issues or behaviours that preserve the emotional connection and emphasise the “couple” over the single partner
  • Effectively soothe your partner and yourself
  • Utilise negotiation skills and compromises
  • Tolerate your partner’s vulnerabilities and conversational habits that are ineffective; keep the focus on shared concerns for the relationship’s wellbeing

Build and follow love maps - Essentially what this means is to remember your partner as a person and try to see things from their perspective. Look beyond 'winning this argument' and remember the bigger picture: your relationship. A love map may look like thinking to yourself: 'How might they feel?' or 'What stresses them out?', remembering that these will help you understand where your partner is coming from during conversations and arguments.

If divorce is still on the cards...

Sometimes saving a marriage is no longer an option, and that's okay too. If reading this article has made you think of the next steps toward divorce then read on for all the advice shared by family lawyer, Stuart Clark. "Planning is important. If possible, sure you have a good understanding of the financial situation. Keep a note of what you know. Keep a journal if possible as this might help in the future. Get your financial affairs organised." 

He goes on to tell us that anyone thinking about divorce should seek legal advice; "Navigating a divorce can be tricky and speaking to a family lawyer can help you to understand your rights, to plan and to plot a route to solving separating your physical, social and financial life from your spouse. We can help you to plan the early stages, be it finding out information or protecting your position. Often some good advice early on can help to avoid difficulties later down the line. It will help you to know what to do immediately, and what to expect. It can help to dispel any misunderstandings about the process and the possible outcomes. And it can help you to plan your first steps."

Our expert panel:

man facing camera
Dr John Gottman PhD

World-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 50 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples.  Dr Gottman is an American psychologist, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington. His work focuses on divorce prediction and marital stability through relationship analysis.

man facing camera
Stuart Clark

Stuart Clark has worked on all aspects of family law and specialises in financial aspects of relationship breakdown, ranging from divorce and civil partnership dissolution and financial matters arising, jurisdiction and forum disputes, Schedule 1, Tolata and the international enforcement of financial orders.

In other relationship news, here's how to explain the mental load to your partner. And, did you know that divorce after a baby is more common than many people think? And that matrescence lasts for up to 10 years after having a baby?

Stephanie Lowe
Family Editor

Stephanie Lowe is Family Editor at GoodToKnow covering all things parenting, pregnancy and more. She has over 13 years' experience as a digital journalist with a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to all things family and lifestyle. Stephanie lives in Kent with her husband and son, Ted. Just keeping on top of school emails/fund raisers/non-uniform days/packed lunches is her second full time job.