How Conflict Styles Predict Divorce

By Julie Garrison

Special to

Social science is beginning to discover the correlation between marital conflict styles and the likelihood of divorce.

It’s a given that couples are going to disagree on a multitude of issues. The way these issues are tackled and resolved can make or break a marriage; issues such as how to effectively handle relationship conflict, the effect that it has on the family, and which conflict styles lead to divorce.

Most people believe that couples who overtly battle-out their conflicts by having arguments and fights have a greater chance of getting divorced.

Though this style of conflict resolution isn’t the best, it is not the conflict style that most often leads to divorce, according to a recent study on how fighting styles affect marriages.


An Interesting Study

The conflict styles of 363 couples were researched and analyzed in a study performed by the University of Michigan over a period of 16 years. The study began during the first year of the marriages, and each couple was interviewed four times over the 16-year period.

The study researched how individual behaviors and behavioral patterns between partners affected the probability of divorce.  The researchers also studied whether or not behavior changed over time and whether gender and racial differences existed in patterns of behavior and results.


Surprising Results

The results were not what you would expect. Husbands and wives who reported having no conflicts during their first year of marriage were in the 20th percentile. However, 46% of those same couples had divorced by the sixteenth year of the study.

Whether or not there was discord during the first year of marriage did not have a bearing on whether they had divorced by the end of the study.


Congruent with Current Statistics

It is interesting to note that the national average of couples in first marriages that ultimately divorce is just a notch over 50%. So the couples in the University of Michigan’s conflict style/divorce study are remarkably close to that 50% figure, lending credibility to the study’s findings.


Constructive vs. Destructive Behaviors

The Michigan study indicated that men used more constructive behaviors in conflicts and less withdrawal and destructive ones overall. However, women were more prone to change over the course of their marriage by using less destructive behaviors, more constructive ways of working through spousal conflicts and less withdrawing. Husbands, though, kept their conflict style the same throughout the course of the marriage.

The Michigan study, however, offered no correlations between fighting styles and civility during the divorce process of the 46% of couples who ultimately divorced.


Theories On Why The Women Changed

One Michigan researcher’s theory as to why the wives became less destructive and withdrew less over the years of the study may be that relationships and their quality are more central to a woman’s wellbeing. Or there’s a good chance that the issues that caused the most conflict in the beginning of the women’s marriages resolved over time and no longer required negotiation or conflict to settle them.

Author Sheryl P. Kurland’s book “Everlasting Matrimony: Pearls of Wisdom from Couples Married 50 Years or More” reiterates an important finding of the Michigan study.

“Individuals who externalize, lash out and are very verbal, whereas individuals who internalize withdraw into silent furor,” said Kurland. “So essentially, arguments ensue when these fighting types are pitted against one another.”


Constructive Conflict Management

It is critical that spouses manage their conflicts in constructive ways, rather than throwing verbal blows at one another or withdrawing. Ineffective conflict resolution in a marriage causes negativity to expand. Unresolved conflicts breed negativity and desperation. Eventually the good aspects of the marriage become far less than the bad ones, and spouses become disenchanted.

Research has shown that spouses who are unhappy in their marriages tend to become sick more often and experience far more emotional problems than spouses who are happily married.  People who are satisfied with their marriage tend to outlive couples that aren’t.

Another interesting reality, supported by research, is that marriages that have more positive interactions than negative ones are far more stable than marriages that are the opposite.


Conclusions of Michigan Study

The bottom line of the Michigan study and all the other research is that when one spouse fights constructively and the other destructively, the marriage is unhealthy and less likely to last. But when the destructive spouse adjusts his/her conflict style to one that is more constructive, the relationship becomes better and marital discord less frequent.

The wives in the Michigan study adjusted their conflict styles over time more than the husbands did. This goes along with the study’s theory that relationships are more central to women than they are to men.

When the wives shifted attention to their own behavior and stopped trying to improve their husbands’, they tended to be happier in marriage even when their husbands continued to do the things that the wives did not like.


The Effect of Change

The Michigan study revealed that a change in one spouse can have the added bonus of effecting a change in the other spouse. In turn, this stabilizes the marriage and the family.

As the Michigan study suggested, positive change in communication style by either spouse may be the key that opens the lock to marriage longevity.




1. “Everlasting Matrimony: Pearls of Wisdom from Couples Married 50 Years or More”; Sheryl P. Kurland; 2004.

2. Orlando Sentinel; “Married and fighting” Amber DiNenna; February 2011.

3. University of Missouri Extension; “Creating a Strong and Satisfying Marriage“; Sharon J. Leigh & Janet A. Clark; May 2000.

4. University of Michigan News Service; “Predicting divorce: U-M study shows how fight styles affect marriage“; Diane Swanbrow;  September 2010.

5. Babyzone; “What Your Fights Say about Your Relationship“; Brenda Stokes.


Julie Garrison has been writing articles and short stories for the past 10 years and has appeared in several magazines and e-zines.

End of Content Icon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *