Destructive Behaviors Linked to Higher Divorce Rates

A current study looked into the implications of certain behaviors in marriage over a 16-year period. The findings showed that certain typically “destructive behaviors” like criticizing or yelling are harmful for a marriage. In the first one year of matrimony, these behaviors as well as “withdrawal” into oneself during conflict could raise the risk of divorce. Researchers also noted that over time, “destructive behavior” decreased in women, whereas it stayed the same in men. In general, “husbands reported more constructive and less destructive behaviors than wives, and Black American couples reported more withdrawal than White American couples.”

We all know that about half of marriages end in divorce.  Studies conducted earlier have shown that some negative behaviors called “destructive behaviors” can raise the risk of divorce occurring. However, “constructive” behaviors like  calm discussion, listening etc. and “withdrawal” behaviors, for example keeping quiet, leaving the scene to calm down have not been studied in detail, with regard to their effect on divorce. It was also not known if these behaviors changed over the years. This study tried to explore the dynamics of these behaviors and their effects on divorce. It also examined the differences in behavior among men and women, as well as any racial differences.


  • The study involved a total of 373 married couples (174 couples were White Americans and 199 were Black Americans) over 16 years. The average age of men at the beginning of the study was 27 and of women was 25 years.
  • All the participants were first interviewed separately in their homes and then together in their first, third, seventh and sixteenth years of marriage.
  • Questions to detect destructive behaviors like shouting, disapproving, name-calling etc. were asked. Similarly, questions related to constructive behaviors, such as listening and trying to understand the spouse, were also asked. For detecting withdrawal behavior, appropriate questions were asked.
  • All answers were scored for severity, using a special scoring system.


  • By the sixteenth year of marriage, 46% of the participant couples were divorced.
  • There were fewer divorces among White Americans than among Black Americans.
  • Couples used constructive behaviors most frequently; withdrawal and destructive behaviors came next.
  • Men and women with destructive behaviors in the initial one year of being married had higher rates of divorce.
  • Individuals who were not raised by both parents and whose children were born out of wedlock used more destructive behavior while those who were richer, better educated, raised by both parents, did not have children out of wedlock and married late used more constructive behavior.
  • Interesting effects were seen when the couples’ behaviors were viewed together. Divorce rates rose when constructive behavior increased in one spouse, but the other used more withdrawal behaviors of leaving; divorces decreased when both partners used more constructive behavior; divorce rates went up when women used “quiet” withdrawal, while men used “leaving” withdrawal behaviors.
  • In Black Americans, “quiet” withdrawal reduced the divorce rate when practiced by men.
  • Over time, “leaving” withdrawal was seen more often in White American men than in Black American men.
  • Women used more destructive behaviors than men but this decreased with passage of years. However, their constructive behavior and withdrawal behavior remained the same over the duration of the study.

Next steps/Shortcomings
The researchers speculate that this study, set in 1986, may not reflect the modern couple. They suggest further studies involving more recently married couples to better understand newer marital dynamics. Also, an individual’s income could be a reason for conflict. Future studies considering this could bring out deeper understanding of the issue.

This study has shown the researchers that “destructive behaviors” as well as “constructive behaviors” and “withdrawal behaviors” have serious implications in preserving or breaking a marriage. There are significant differences between sexes and among races with respect to various behaviors; this has resulted in differing divorce rates. The researchers hope that their work inspires further research the way spouses react to conflict and how it impacts the longevity of their marriages. With the rise in divorce rates, an understanding of these behaviors may become very vital from a socio-cultural point of view.

For More Information:
Marital Conflict Behaviors and Implications for Divorce Over 16 Years
Journal of Marriage and Family, October 2010
By Kira S. Birditt; Edna Brown
From the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan; University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.

Tags from the story
, ,