Changing Four Behaviors that Predict Divorce with Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

According to, researchers at the University of Washington’s Gottman Institute have identified four behaviors most likely to predict divorce with 93% accuracy in longitudinal studies of married couples.  The behaviors were so accurate that they have been labelled “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” by researchers.

They are:

1. Contempt: A mix of anger and disgust, believing your partner is beneath you in some way.  For example, when your partner makes a mistake, they become an “idiot” in your eyes.  The partner themselves, in addition to their behavior, becomes the target.  

2. Criticism: Specifically criticizing the person as a whole, as above and beyond specific actions.  For example, if your partner leaves out dirty dishes, your thoughts turn to criticism of the person themselves rather than the habit alone.

3. Defensiveness: For example, if you both arrive late for an important engagement and you immediately blame it on your spouse to those around you.  

4. Stonewalling: Yes, just like the famous scene in the Big Labowski where “Larry” is totally unresponsive to “Walter” played by John Goodman.  Stonewalling lead Walter to do something he later regretted.  The same goes for your marriage.  Stonewalling, or being totally unresponsive to attempted conversation from your partner, only serves to build up long-term issues that will, in some form or another, surface down the road.

Behaviorally speaking, the function of these four behaviors are incompatible to long-term relationship success.  What is needed is a realignment of behavior with long-term relationship values.  From the perspective of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, values are ways of behaving that can never be fulfilled, and it is helpful to talk about values with words ending in “-ing” such as “caring,” “loving,”  etc…

ACT research has demonstrated countless times over the past 30 years that values clarification is a primary means of getting your own behavior on track and inline with what you really care about in life.  The technical term is “tracking” or rule-governed behavior maintained by the correspondence between rules and behavioral consequences you actually experience.  One can begin to self-regulate his/her own behavior along the lines of valued life directions.

For example, if you value being “caring” in a relationship, you can generate a whole list of ways of being that are in line with “caring” and this list would be different for each person.  As you continue in your relationship, it then becomes easier to see if your behavior is inline with the value of “caring” and when it veers off course.

But this article just barely scratches the surface of ACT.  For a great starting point into this literature, visit You can also check out the Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, and the many resources available at the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science.

In your opinion, what are the most important behaviors in a relationship?  Let us know in the comments below, and don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles, and free monthly issues, directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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