There is only one cause of divorce, and it’s not what you think.

If you ask your friends, parents, neighbors, or coworkers this question, I suspect you will get a string of answers:

  • Problems with raising children
  • Money problems
  • Religion
  • In-laws

I don’t think any of those are true.

While all of these may be issues in a marriage, none of them are significant causes of divorce. There is only one major cause of divorce today - fighting.

Now, you may say, “Clearly, a couple that gets divorced is going to be fighting. But isn’t it the issues that cause the fights? It’s the question of how we discipline the children, or how we spend our money, or how we deal with your parents, that causes all the bickering.”

But that’s not correct.

It’s not the issues that cause fights. It’s how the couple deals with the issues that defines their relationship. In many very successful marriages, the couple has differences over major issues.

Irreconcilable differences

Studies show that 70% of successful, longstanding marriages have irreconcilable differences. An irreconcilable difference is a major life issue where he needs one thing, she needs another, and there is no possible compromise. If she wants to send the children to a Chassidishe school, and he wants them brought up Litvish, you can’t compromise and have the kids running around with curly payos on one side. There is no solution that will satisfy both of them. And these issues never go away. They remain part of a couple’s life throughout their marriage. Yet despite the existence of this kind of disparity, most happily married couples are able to create a longstanding, harmonious union.

Even more eye-opening, studies show that about a third of all the issues that couples fight about, big or small, have no compromise position. It’s either your parents’ house for the Seder or mine. We can paint the living room green or blue, but mixing the two isn’t an option. Yet despite these differences, many couples are able to maintain a loving, happy relationship.

Because two mature, reasonable people can figure out a way to deal with most anything that life throws at them. Sometimes my way, sometimes your way, but we’re in this together and we’ll work it out. And if we can’t, there are always plenty of people who are older and wiser to guide us.

That’s the key: as long as we’re in this together. As long as we’re partners, working together.

What’s the secret to maintaining that sense of togetherness?

Predicting divorce

Dr. John Gottman, a leading marriage researcher, spent thirty years studying couples in depth. He has developed a method to predict whether a couple will divorce, and he is right 94% of the time.

His method is simple. He asks a couple to come to his “lab” and he studies their interactions very carefully. He asks them to have a discussion about three issues in their marriage: one neutral, one mutually pleasing, and at least one flash point—something they find themselves often disagreeing about. While these discussions are happening, he monitors the emotional responses of the couple.

He’s looking for one particular reaction: contempt.

Contempt is not quite hatred, not quite anger; it’s the rolling of the eyes, that “What’s wrong with you” look that many couples exhibit. Dr. Gottman explains that if he sees a ratio of more than one reaction of contempt to five reactions of approval, the marriage is in danger. Unless they do something to change their relationship, it is almost certain to fail.

Contempt is such a clear indicator of a marriage in jeopardy because it’s the opposite of love. And love is vital for a marriage. When there is love in a marriage, the couple is tolerant, accepting, and forgiving of each other. Little things don’t bother them. They know about each other’s flaws, but it’s okay. They are friends, so they look out for each other, and they compensate for the shortcomings of their spouse. That doesn’t mean they won’t have issues and struggles; they will, that’s just a part of life. They will also disagree and maybe even fight. But they are one unit, together facing the challenges of life. They adjust to one another and somehow work out all the challenges that life sends their way.

If, however, the love in the marriage starts to weaken, things unravel quickly. The natural forgiveness and tolerance disappears. The couple begins to annoy each other and get on each other’s nerves. Pretty soon each one feels they are being wronged, and they belittle each other (either aloud or just in their head). Under these circumstances, they see their spouse’s flaws everywhere they look. Before long they start carping, complaining, and criticizing, and become very difficult to live with. At this point everything is an issue, from who takes out the garbage to who pays the bills to what time we leave… Life will provide an endless stream of things to fight about, and fight they will.

The success or failure of a marriage pivots on this one issue—a bond of love. If the basic climate of the marriage is love, then even flaws are viewed in the context of love. He’s a good guy. Granted, he has flaws, he does things that I prefer he didn’t—but he’s still a good guy. If the love in a marriage starts to wane, then you start hearing things like, “He’s a creep! He never does anything right. And the one time he did do something right, it was for the wrong reason and in the wrong way!”

When a relationship hits that point, it doesn’t matter how aligned the couple is in their thinking, goals, and aspirations. Without love, squabbling and bickering is inevitable, they will grow further and further apart, the downward spiral will only worsen, and unless they correct their course, their marriage is doomed.

In short, the success or failure of a marriage depends on the love in the relationship. That doesn’t mean that they will always be madly, passionately in love, and it doesn’t mean they won’t have ups and downs. It means that if the emotional connection is strong, they can weather all storms and manage whatever life throws at them. But if the love weakens, they are in trouble.

By Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier