Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Marriages Die - And Come Back To Life

August 14, 1995

How is it that well intentioned couples like Ted and Alice get divorced? We aren't talking about a teen marriage, a precipitous courtship or a marriages forced by pregnancy. Nor are we talking about a marriage with a spouse that has a character defect like being lazy, self-centered, rigid or dishonest. Ted and Alice don’t come from dysfunctional families nor does either one have an addiction problem.

No, we aren't talking about a flawed marriage. We are talking about good people without major hangups who are on the verge of divorce.

The number one predictor of divorce is a history of unresolved conflict. These are couples who don't know how to solve problems. They recycle disagreements over and over again. They bring up the past. They blame and criticize each other. Anger, harshness, judgments and hostility are expressed freely. Partners don't feel free to be themselves without inviting attack or disappointment in their mate.

With too much conflict, partners start to feel that being around each other is an opportunity for pain. Marriage stops being fun. Friendship disappears. Sensuality suffers when anger flourishes.

Marriage commitment. Scott Stanley, psychologist from Denver University and coauthor of the book, "Fighting for Your Marriage," explains how couples erode and finally sacrifice marriage commitment in the face of frustrating conflict. He divides commitment into two factors - constraint and dedication.


  • Constraint.  Constraint involves factors - other than love and devotion - that keep us in the relationship. Constraints might include money, religion, children, social pressure, guilt, low self-esteem, status, or fear. Constraints are not negative unless dissatisfaction is high. They are seen as negative if one partner feels trapped in the relationship.

Couples put boundaries around their relationship to protect it. This means consciously giving up thoughts or prospects of being with someone else. They avoid intimate discussions with cross sex friends and fantasies about real, available, attractive alternatives. Stanley’s evidence shows that couples actively devalue potential alternatives that come into their lives. Instead of looking over the fence at greener grass, they look over the fence to find the weeds in the other person's lawn.


  • Dedication. Dedication describes the faithful, dependable love and sacrifice found in a relationship. These things make a relationship fun. These are the things that brought the couple together in the first place. It includes friendship, long intimate talks, sharing interests and enjoying companionship. It happens when a couple freely shares goals, dreams and core beliefs.

Dedication means putting one's partner first most of the time, showing kindness and consideration, and giving up something for the sake of the other. Dedication is supporting each other's growth and goals and sacrificing to make them happen. Dedication means taking the time and energy to cultivate a relationship by spending time together and, most important, working patiently and lovingly to resolve differences.

How constraint and dedication interact. When constraint is high and dedication is high, then commitment is strong. Dedication may be high but when there are few constraints commitment may falter over inevitable low points and temporary dissatisfactions.

When constraints are high and dedication is low, people feel trapped and frustrated by a situation that has no easy answers. People vary in their willingness to live with dissatisfactions. Constraints keep them there.

However, this last situation cannot go on forever. Let’s get back to Ted and Alice. Alice give up trying to make positive changes. The decision to marry came out of an effort to reduce anxiety - "I don't want to lose Ted." Now in her unhappy state, she looks forward to getting away from Ted. Alice starts to again feel anxious - should she stay or should she go? She starts questioning her commitment.

Alice sees everything Ted does in a negative light. Even the positive things Ted does she feels he’s doing for the wrong reasons. There is growing pessimism about the future. Alice loses faith that Ted can change - or that they can solve problems together.

The "D" word - divorce - is thought about, considered and finally mentioned. The attitude about the marriage becomes short term. What happens? Alice stops investing herself in the relationship. She no longer holds back during fights. She brings up the past. She remembers the bad and forgets the good from the past. Sarcasm and contempt take their corrosive toll. Finally Alice withdraws emotionally and sexually.

Alice now looks at possible alternatives in a different light. She sees weeds in their own lawn and green grass everywhere else. As high as the constraints might be, they are no longer sufficient to keep her there.

How to turn things around. What is Stanley’s advice on how to halt this destructive slide into divorce? Stop the fighting and hostility. How? Stanley and his colleagues have developed a program eliminating frustrating conflicts by teaching communication and problem-solving skills to couples like Ted and Alice.

Ted and Alice need to try to recapture their commitment by making their relationship enjoyable again. Couples are advised to start having fun, do things together and rededicate themselves to their partner's happiness. When both partners try at the same time, miracles happen. Small changes make a big difference. Loving someone who is loving you is easy.