Like the break-ups themselves, divorce rates are a complicated subject to study. Questions abound: Should we really want divorce rates to go down? Is it true that about half of American marriages end in splitsville? And why are so many baby boomers ending things all of a sudden?
Then there are the questions of what predicts divorce in the first place—a complex line of research that Ball State associate professor Justin Lehmiller recently digested on his Sex & Psychology blog. While the literature is muddy in a lot of places, a few themes have born out in repeated studies.
Age matters. Couples that marry later tend to have relationships that last longer. The earlier the couple gets together, the greater the risk of later divorce. Interestingly, that holds if couples move in together while they’re younger (as in teen years), too.
So do demographics. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, education and religion are both powerful predictors of lasting or dissolving unions.
Women with a bachelor’s degree have a 78 percent chance of having their marriages lasting 20 years, compared with 41 percent for those with a high school education, while it’s respectively 65 percent and 47 percent for men. Identifying as religious also gave a similar bump versus being nonreligious.
One personality trait makes things especially hard. Neuroticism—or emotional instability—is a personality trait that measures how sensitive you are to perceived threats, and how likely you are to ruminate about them. It’s been implicated in anxiety and depression disorders, and, Lehmiller notes, has been shown repeatedly to predict divorce.
Infidelity most certainly does not help. This one’s not exactly surprising. When people cheat on each other, As documented in a 17-year longitudinal study following nearly 1,500 people, cheating leads to lower marital happiness, a greater feeling of “divorce proneness,” or the chance you might split up, and a higher occurrence of actually doing so.
It’s important to note that all of these things are correlations, even in the case of infidelity. these studies can’t say definitely what causes divorce. That comes to light with more zeroed-in close relationships research.
Over the past forty years, relationships research pioneer John Gottman, author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and a bunch of other titles on the topic, has teased apart the contours of what makes relationships work or not. The number one killer, as indicated in the lab and on the therapist’s office: contempt. Things that signal you’re disgusted with your partner are all super toxic for a relationship, like hostile humor, name-calling, eye-rolling. But there’s also some hope here, too: if you want a relationship to last, be kind to the person you’re with. In a sense, it’s as simple as that.