Take five seconds to think about what you think are the most common events or reasons people divorce. During which years of marriage do you think couples most likely to divorce? Let’s see if you’re right.
Most people mistakenly think the most common events that precipitate a divorce are illness, infidelity, job loss or death of a child. Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education (CMFCE), says the event most likely to precede divorce is the birth of a child and the three months following. People also mistakenly think year seven has the highest divorce rate, but she says the highest divorce rates are during first two years and years 14 to 16, leading to the average marriage length of seven years.
Couples may believe that conflict causes divorce, but actually the opposite is true. Smart Marriages, the educational organization run by CMFCE, reports that “the number-one predictor of divorce is the habitual avoidance of conflict.” Early in a marriage, couples may feel that to stay in love they need to agree, be quiet, not fight. In a more mature marriage, couples may avoid conflict because it quickly gets out of hand, either leading to blow-ups or at least one partner shutting down. “Successful couples are those who know how to discuss their differences in ways that actually strengthen their relationship and improve intimacy,” says Sollee. She adds that they know how to keep the disagreement confined so that they don’t contaminate the rest of the relationship.
In other words, don’t let a disagreement stop you from having fun together and making time to enjoy what brought you together in the first place.
Are you thinking that healthy, happy relationships shouldn’t have these areas of disagreement? That would be an incorrect and unrealistic expectation. According to Sollee, marriage researchers have found that “every happy, successful couple has approximately ten areas of incompatibility or disagreement that they will never resolve.” That’s right, Never. So focusing on these areas may just keep you from enjoying the best parts of your relationship. And leaving your partner because you can’t agree on everything will likely lead to you being stuck with another partner who has ten different areas of incompatibility. (For second marriages, the biggest areas of disagreement are about children from earlier relationships.)
“Successful couples learn how to manage the disagreements and live life ‘around’ them—to love in spite of their areas of difference, and to at least develop understanding and empathy for their partner’s positions,” explains Sollee. They also learn to welcome and embrace change, and to lovingly negotiate with one another.
Sollee says the skills for handling disagreement and conflict and for integrating change and expressing love, intimacy, sex, and appreciation can all be learned, for example through educational courses. Gaining or improving these skills will not only improve your marriage, it will allow you to provide a positive model for your family and friends, and particularly your children, who learn most through your example.