To the socially observant, this should come as no shock: divorce is most common during two distinct stages in a marriage. The first is the famed itch that falls within the first seven years; the second coincides with midlife crises. A new study, though, actually shows how the kinds of problems a dysfunctional couple faces can predict in which of these two stages they are more likely to split. John Gottman of the University of Washington and Robert Levenson of the University of California at Berkeley present the findings in this month's issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family.
The researchers tracked 79 marriages in Bloomington, Ind., beginning in 1983. Over the course of 14 years, they periodically checked in with the couples, questioning them about their levels of marital satisfaction. In the end, 22 couples, or 28 percent, had divorced. And what Gottman and Levenson observed were two patterns of behavior. Couples who broke up early in their marriages tended to fight openly and consistently with each other, whereas those who split in midlife were more often alienated and avoidant. Gottman adds that although bad marriages aren't all bad in the same ways, most--including these main types--can benefit from counseling.