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Here's how I can tell a couple is heading for divorce.

I’m a marriage counselor. Here’s how I can tell a couple is heading for divorce.

Great reminders! All marriages hit rough patches and here are Sherry’s tips for avoiding the D word when things get hard.

by Sherry Amatenstein | Originally published on | Feature image © Shutterstock


I’m often asked if I can tell from my first contact with a couple if they are headed for divorce. The answer is, “Yes, but…”

Yes, if they are emitting non-stop words and gestures of anger and disrespect throughout the session. Yes, if their values and goals are galaxies apart. Yes, if there has been a bucket load of betrayal and no effort to make amends.

But the fact that they are seeking counseling means that a soupçon of hope remains. It becomes clear quickly whether there is something healthy left amid the dysfunction that can take root and flower.

Here are nine signs that the relationship is on life support. (All patients’ names are changed.)

1) They’re trapped in a tsunami of contempt

Andrew and Sheila sat on opposite ends of the couch, their bodies stiff as Buckingham Palace guards save for the occasional eye roll. They’d spent the entirety of the first session hurling insults and blaming one another for everything except global warming and the Sony hacking.

Andrew: “All you do is complain. You never appreciated when I did something nice, so I stopped bothering.”

Sheila: “Oh please. As usual, you’re rewriting history. I’m the one who constantly twisted myself into a pretzel pleasing you and got nothing in return because you are incapable of a kind gesture.”

Andrew: “You are so stupid I can’t bear listening to a word you say.”

When a couple is this far in the weeds they need more than a compass to get back.

I work to help each person own his or her share in what the relationship has become, to encourage them to remember what they saw in one another way back when, and to understand that being mean has a ricochet effect — nastiness will come whipping back.

If they can’t moderate this abhorrent behavior, not only will this relationship implode, so will any subsequent one they attempt.

Sheila said in our fifth and final session, “I don’t like myself when I’m awful to Andrew. But he doesn’t bring out the good side in me anymore. And I don’t bring it out in him. So I think it is time for us to part.”

2) They’re more married to chaos and dysfunction than to one another

It is human nature to mirror behavior that is familiar. If you were raised in a home where yelling, uncertainty, and lots of drama were constants, that is your model for what marriage looks like.

This doesn’t mean you are doomed to fail at long-term love. But old habits won’t die unless you start forging better ones.

Growing up, Beth was forced to watch her parents loudly criticize one another and regularly break plans and promises to each other and their children. Her father was a compulsive shopaholic, plunging the family into financial turmoil.

Her husband, Paul, raised by two alcoholics, was no stranger to turmoil. He spent his first 16 years being the ‘good boy’ so he wouldn’t trigger his volatile parents.

Marriage counseling was their Hail Mary attempt to avoid divorce. Paul said, “When things are calm, I’m afraid Beth has stopped loving me. She shows passion by yelling. But her screaming gives me panic attacks.”  More and more frequently he began spending the night at a neighbor’s house.

Partners need not wholly agree on core issues, but if their differences are extreme, conflict is inevitable

Beth admitted, “Paul is always so sweet yet I live in fear he’ll leave. So I make myself unlovable by acting like a bitch on steroids. Then I feel terrible.”

Beneath the havoc, both longed for safe harbor. Once they realized they were copying their parents’ relationship styles, it became easier to stop. We explored healthy boundaries and rules such as, “If you want to make a big purchase, first discuss it with your partner.”

Most importantly, we explored the emotions underneath the defensiveness and fear.  Rather than testing her husband’s love by acting out, Beth began to ask for what she needed: “I’m feeling insecure right now. Can you hug me?”

And Paul was increasingly able to express his desires: “Your yelling makes me feel like a kid cowering from my parents. Can you please lower the volume?” He no longer needed to run away.

As their relationship went from toxic to trusting, instead of calling a divorce lawyer they began discussing having a baby.  Beth said, “It won’t be easy but I now believe I’m not doomed to repeat my parents’ mistakes.”

3) They’ve been rocked to the core by a tragedy

While wedding vows state “for better or for worse,” some couples find being together after the worst a too-painful reminder of unbearable loss.

Kathy and Bill were childhood sweethearts who’d been passionate about starting a family. They came to therapy six months after their infant died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

As Kathy said in session, “When Dickie was born it felt like the culmination of all our dreams. Now, everything is ash.”

In therapy, each admitted secretly blaming the other for the death. They came to see these feelings were an attempt to make a little sense out of an otherwise inexplicable horror.

They learned how to communicate instead of withholding, and to stop feeling guilty whenever they forgot about their loss for a few hours.

However, they ultimately decided to separate because, without the baby, there was little connective tissue. “We got married so young we didn’t really know ourselves, much less the other person,” Bill said at the last session.

Couples can survive tragedy when they have a rock-solid foundation. If a relationship is just about overcoming a crisis, the marriage will be in crisis.


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