Improving Communication to Prevent Divorce– Jeremy Kanter

Although divorce rates in the United States have been decreasing in the last ten years, about 36 percent of first marriages will end in divorce (National Center for Health Statistics). This is a serious problem for Americans due to the negative effects a divorce can have on both children and adults. For adults there is clear evidence of a link between long-lasting healthy marriages and better health outcomes, such as living longer, lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart attacks, cancer, and arthritis (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1987). There also is a link to depression from going through a divorce or having a poor relationship (Braithwaite & Fincham, 2009). A healthy marriage can truly add years to one’s life. On average men live seven years longer than single or divorced men and women live three years longer (Harrison 2007). Not only is the consequences of divorce felt by the adults, it also can be detrimental for children. Children who experience their parents fighting are more likely to be depressed, have higher blood pressure, experience social problems, as well as learned negative models to handle conflict themselves (Sarrazin & Cyr, 2007). The conflict that couples fight about most frequently has been observed as arguments over: Money, children (parenting styles, division of responsibilities), chores, leisure time, sex, and relatives (Oggins 2003). Yet, instead of addressing each individual topic to couples, researchers have turned to communication skills in order to help with all of these topics by just improving the way these issues are discussed. These communication skills can be taught before or during marriage. The main focus of these classes is communication exercises in order to help couples with their relationship quality and satisfaction.

One aspect that communication plays a role in couples’ relationships is what Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg (2001) describe as” filters.” They describe multiple filters such as: distractions, emotional state, beliefs and expectations, difference in style, and self-protection.  Distractions are defined as any internal or external factors that take away from the conversation you are having with your partner. An emotional state is simply when a partner comes back from a stressful day and takes this out on his or her partner. Beliefs and expectations can be seen when a partner expects the worst out of their partner, if one partner expects the worst, they will be looking for the worst to happen. Difference in styles is a filter that can be seen when one partner grows up with parents who express themselves by yelling, when the other partner is used to a more quite approach, when these two approaches meet, it could be a negative filter to their conversation. Finally, self-protection is one partner not bringing up a topic because of the fear of getting rejected. All of these filters are part of a communication process.  If these filters are not recognized; they can be detrimental to couples communication and lead to a lowered satisfaction in the relationship and eventually dissolution (Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg, 2001).

A second aspect of communication that can have considerable impact on relationships is the frequency of negative to positive communication.   John Gottman has spent many hours in his Love Lab studying distressed couples and has created several theories involving couples and how to make a marriage work.  This has led him to identify the ratio between positive and negative communication of 5 to 1.  That is, for every 5 positive interactions there is one negative one.  Gottman has found that this is a powerful predictor of divorce.  When this ratio is less than 5 to 1, problems in the relationship mount and dissolution usually follows.  Gottman asserts that the four most damaging types of communication are criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness. (Carrere & Gottman, 1999).  He defines criticism as an attack on a person’s character instead of the situation. Contempt would be one partner viewing themselves as better than the other. Stonewalling is when one person shuts down emotionally from the conversation because the other partner is just attacking them with so much at once. Finally, defensiveness is the reluctance of one partner to acknowledge responsibility in the situation the couple is dealing with. These all tie into communication because if one does not recognize these creeping into their relationship, it could doom the conversation and make any communication nearly impossible.

The final way poor communication can lead to divorce is through expectations and roles. With the shifting roles of women throughout the last 30-40 years, marriages have been affected as well. There is a push for equal roles in decision making in relationships which creates new opportunities for conflict.  Many of these conflicts can originate from the expectations an individual has about how a certain topic will be addressed before marriage, and then the actual behaviors that occur during the marriage, this dissonance can cause a lot of dissatisfaction and conflict for couples (Madden & Janoff-Bulman 1981). When poor communication skills are mixed in with this dissonance it can lead to detrimental problems for couples, ones that if not addressed can lead to a divorce.

In the past 20 years these findings about the ways that communication issues can contribute to divorce has been translated into couples’ communication programs.  Researchers have been quite successful in creating curriculums to teach to couples communication skills that can strengthen their relationships.  The most successful marital education program to date is Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP)( Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg (2001), which uses a cognitive-behavioral approach. PREP is structured to have 5 main sessions: Sessions 1 and 2 focus on communication skills training, session 3 focuses on problem-solving training, session 4 discusses clarification of marital expectations, and session 5 has a focus on sensual/sexual education and relationship enhancement (Markman et al., 1988). PREP has been shown to sustain its effectiveness over three years and measures its effectiveness on marital satisfaction, lower levels of relationship instability, relationship aggression, lower rates of divorce or breaking up, and more positive interaction. Interestingly, even with this widely research based program, in a 5 year follow-up, the only advantage the experimental group had over the control group was in communication skills and less physical violence in men (Markmen et al., 1993). There also seem to be many limitation to these programs, the biggest concern by many researchers is in fact these classes are not reaching couples that need them the most (low-income families). There also seems to be a gap in testing these programs with a diverse population which makes it nearly impossible to generalize the effectiveness of a program to a wide audience (Carroll & Doherty, 2003).

A way that these classes can be sure to reach more families is moving the program to an online delivery.  There has been one initial attempt by converting PREP to ePREP (Braithwaite & Finacham, 2009). They found in a six month follow up significant improvements in relationship satisfaction and communication skills. A proposed solution would be to create a program similar to PREP and ePREP but with more interaction utilizing the newest social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. When a program like this is created, it could assist many couples who are either reluctant about attending therapy, or do not have time or transportation to go to these classes. An online program could be taken in the convenience of one’s own house. Divorce education programs have already moved many of their co-parenting classes to the internet (Schramm, & Mccaulley, 2012), so to move marriage education classes there next would be a logical step. Using Facebook and Twitter can also help with these programs giving couples exercises to do at home and also help with supplying an open forum where couples can ask questions or just hear different experiences from other couples who are dealing with possibly the same issues as them.  This would also be a great way to post any new findings in the research to keep content up to date. As well, this would be a great application for phones so people can open this up when they have truly any free time, not only when they are in front of their computers. Combining empirical methods to improve communication skills with the newest technology of the 21st century can only help strengthen marriages and benefit families across the world.

There are a multiple of topics that couples fight about, yet it seems to be not what couples are fighting about that leads to divorce, rather how they are fighting (Gottman, 1999). It also has been observed that one of the leading predictors of divorce is poor communication (Bradbury and Karney, 1995). If we can teach couples how to approach these discussions with better communication, we could equip them with the power to strengthen their future marriages. It sometimes is not about being right that gets couples past a fight, but instead, just being heard, which a key concept is taught in communication training (Markman, Stanley, & Blumberg, 2001).


Braithwaite, S. R., & Fincham, F. D. (2009). A randomized clinical trial of a computer based preventive intervention: Replication and extension of ePREP. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 32-38.

Carrere, S., & Gottman, J. (1999). Predicting Divorce among Newlyweds from the First Three Minutes of a Marital Conflict Discussion. Family Process, 38(3), 293-301.

Carroll, J. S., & Doherty, W. J. (2003). Evaluating the effectiveness of premarital prevention programs: A meta-analytic review of outcome research. Family Relations, 52, 105-18.

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Kiecolt, G., Fisher, L., Ogrocki, P., Stout, J., Speicher, C., & Glaser, R. (1987). Marital quality, marital disruption, and immune function. Psychosomatic Medicine, 49, 13-34.

Madden, M. E., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1981). Blame, control, and marital satisfaction: Wives’ attributions for conflict in marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 43, 63-74.

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Markman, H., Stanley, S., & Blumberg, S. (2001). Fighting for your marriage: positive steps for preventing divorce and preserving a lasting love. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Oggins, J. (2003). Topics of marital disagreement among African-American and Euro-American newlyweds. Psychological Reports, 92, 419-425.

Sarrazin, J., & Cyr, F. (2007). Parental conflicts and their damaging effects on children. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 47, 77-93.

Schramm, D. G., & McCaulley, G. (2012). Divorce Education for Parents: A Comparison of Online and In-Person Delivery Methods. Journal Of Divorce & Remarriage, 53, 602-617. doi:10.1080/10502556.2012.721301

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