I'm A Couples' Therapist & This Habit Tells Me A Couple May Be Headed For Divorce
I've been a couples' therapist for over a decade, and there is one thing I ask in every first session no matter what: "How did you meet?"
You might think the reason I ask that question is obvious. Why wouldn't you ask that? It's cute to hear how people met.
Yes, that's true, though it's not exactly why I ask it. In fact, letting people recount their early years is an incredibly powerful tool of assessment.
What a couple's view of their own history may say about their future.
As I listen to couples tell me about how they met, I pay attention to how each person is telling the story, and I also pay attention to how their partner is reacting to the story. If both people are able to look back fondly at their early years, this tends to be a good sign. If people talk negatively about how they met, this tends to indicate that there are some major problems within the relationship.
In fact, some research1 has found how people describe their past as a couple is correlated to their likelihood of staying together. People who recount their early years as a negative experience are more likely to divorce than couples who describe the early years as positive.
That doesn't mean divorce is inevitable, of course: As their therapist, understanding how a couple sees their past helps me to understand what type of intervention they need in the present. If a couple is having conflict, but they still smile when describing their early years, it's likely they just need help learning some new skills for communicating. The relationship hasn't "fallen apart" too much.
Whereas if I meet with a couple who criticizes their early years, I know they probably need a different type of support. Before being able to navigate conflict from a place of love and respect, these couples need support in three specific areas: negativity toward their spouse, marital disappointment, and flooding.
Negativity toward your spouse
After years of mismanaged conflict, couples will begin to develop a negativity bias toward each other. This means that they start to see everything about their partner through a negative lens. Instead of giving the benefit of the doubt, they doubt everything. Even when their partner does something kind or sweet, they will see it through a critical lens. For example:
- "Yes, they were so sweet in the beginning, but it was only an act."
- "I guess we went on some good dates, but they were always so expensive so nothing has changed."
Couples will also begin to see each other in absolute terms:
- "They were never romantic."
- "They've always been inconsiderate."
- "They never really tried that hard."
Almost nothing in life is an absolute, and by thinking this way, you are imagining that it is. The more you think in absolutes, the harder it will be to see your partner in a new light. Also, when we speak in absolutes, we elicit defensiveness. By saying something like "You never are romantic," you are setting yourself up for a response like "Are you kidding? Last month I set up that entire date for us, and you didn't even care. I can't ever win."
We also know that people tend to meet our expectations for them. When we tell someone we already think they're failing, they are likely to stop trying. Whereas, when we point out where we felt they met the mark, they feel motivated to meet it again.
In order to improve this, you'll want to make a conscious effort to pay attention to the good your partner does in your day-to-day life. Try keeping an appreciation journal, taking time to offer your partner words of appreciation and gratitude, and stop adding a "but" to the end of positive praise.
Describing your early years as a bummer means that there is some level of marital disappointment in the relationship. When people can't even muster a cute story about the first time they met, it might signal they've given up on their marriage. It can indicate that they feel defeated and depressed about the outcome and that they've forgotten the possibility that it was ever exciting, loving, and good.
Often this is related to unspoken expectations within the relationship. In order to improve, you'll need to do a reset on what you expect from each other and start to be more expressive and clear about your needs.
Couples who struggle with marital disappointment and negativity in their relationship are more likely to live in what clinical psychologist and emotions researcher Paul Ekman, Ph.D., calls a flooded state. A flooded state means that our bodies are stimulated in many ways—physically and emotionally—and because of this, we struggle to address conflict productively. You'll notice you're flooded if your heart is racing, it's hard to access your thoughts during conflict, and you feel jittery or completely shut down.
To reduce flooding, work on improving the negativity and marital disappointment. And, in the moment, you'll want to practice self-soothing through breathing, releasing your muscles, and, if necessary, taking a break.
The way you think about your relationship matters. Make sure that you are paying attention to where your thoughts go. While it is important to maintain a realistic understanding of our relationship—which does include having complaints and negative thoughts—we also need to make sure we are making room for the good things, noticing what we appreciate, love, and where our partner is doing things "right."
Chronic negativity toward our spouse, disappointment, and flooding can lead our relationship to unhappiness and, if married, divorce.
If you truly believe your partner is never doing anything right, there isn't anything to appreciate, and you're finding it hard to notice what you love, then it's important to take time to decide whether you want to continue in the relationship. It's not fair to either person to live in a relationship that is colored by disappointment and negativity toward each other. Couples' therapy can help.
Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, is a Philadelphia-based marriage and family therapist, certified Gottman therapist, and author of I Want This To Work. She is the director and therapist at A Better Life Therapy and cofounder of Ours. She received her bachelor's in adult organizational development and education from Temple University and her master's in couples and and family therapy from Thomas Jefferson University. She primarily works with couples experiencing high levels of conflict and individuals struggling with relational issues.