If you want your marriage to succeed, it pays to know why other marriages fail. I have tracked 373 married couples for the past 26 years as part of a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. The goal was to investigate how marriages really work over the long term—but many marriages don’t work, at least not forever. Of those 373 couples, 46% have divorced, roughly in line with national averages.

What went wrong in those failed marriages? And what would those divorced people do differently if they could start over again? When I put those questions to my study participants, key trends emerged. Surprising: Sex was not a major issue when it came to what divorced people said they would “change” if they could start over again. And it wasn’t a key predictor of divorce over time in my study.


Divorced people typically report that a lack of communication wasn’t the problem in their relationships—they spoke with their spouses often during their marriages. But when these divorced people considered the content of their conversations, many admitted that the vast majority were about the business of the household—what chores needed to get done, what time they would be returning home from work, whether they were running low on peanut butter. Such conversations are necessary in a marriage, but they do little to make couples feel close.

What to do: Discuss your goals and dreams regularly with your partner, and encourage your partner to do the same with you. Do this even if you’ve been married for years and already know quite well what your spouse wants out of life. Even if very little new information is supplied, having these conversations increases the odds that you and your spouse will continue to see each other as partners in your pursuit of your goals and dreams.

On days when you don’t chat about big things such as goals and dreams, at least have conversations about topics you both enjoy talking about. These might include books, movies or current events—anything you both appreciate that’s unrelated to your responsibilities and your marriage.


Many of the divorced people in my study admitted that their partners often got pushed to the back burner when life became busy. Their spouses wound up feeling taken for granted—a feeling that can lead to divorce when it is allowed to persist.

What to do: Make a gesture that shows your love and makes your spouse feel special every day. These gestures can be quite simple. Take your spouse’s hand and say, “I love you,” or “Thank you for being a great husband/wife.” Provide a kiss or hug at an unexpected moment. Or do a little thing that makes your spouse’s life easier without being asked, such as bringing in the newspaper or starting the coffee in the morning. It isn’t the size of the gestures that prevents spouses from feeling taken for granted. It’s the consistency with which these gestures are made—once a day at a minimum.

Warning: Some people believe that wives care more about receiving gestures of love than husbands. In fact, divorce is particularly likely when husbands fail to receive these gestures. This probably is because married women tend to receive gestures of love from their friends and relations in addition to their husbands. Husbands typically receive them only from their wives, so they miss them even more when their wives don’t provide them.


Many married couples don’t talk about money any more than necessary. Finances are the number-one source of conflict in marriage, so avoiding this topic can seem like a good way to avoid stirring up trouble. But my research shows that talking less about money actually increases the odds of divorce. True, talks about money can trigger spats—but couples who avoid money talks increase the risk that their money issues will remain unresolved and escalate until they endanger the marriage.

Example: If a relationship’s lines of communication about finances are closed, one partner might spend freely, not realizing that the other is becoming angrier and angrier about the couple’s inability to save for retirement.

What to do: First, consider what money means to you. Does it represent security? Status? Love? Success as a provider? Think about how your parents handled finances, too, and whether that might be affecting your financial beliefs and behavior. Also, reflect upon your financial goals and priorities.

Next, have a few chats with your spouse about noninflammatory money-related topics, such as money you’ve managed to save or upcoming expenses that you both agree upon. Mixing in some low-stress money talks can prevent anxiety levels from skyrocketing every time money is mentioned.

After you’ve had a few painless money conversations, share your financial goals and priorities with your spouse, as well as any thoughts you have about what money means to you. Ask your partner to do the same, then try to find common ground with your spouse about family spending rules and limits.

Example: Agree to consult with each other on all purchases over a certain dollar amount.


When one or both spouses chronically blame the other for the marriage’s problems, the result tends to be escalating anger. When one or both spouses chronically blame himself or herself for the marriage’s problems, the result tends to be feelings of guilt or depression. In either case, the odds of divorce increase.

What to do: When you have a fight, try to blame the relationship or circumstances, not your spouse or yourself. Say things such as, “We were both tired when we said those things”…or “We just weren’t communicating well.”

Also, people who already have divorced should take care to not blame their former spouses or themselves for the failure of that marriage. Use phrases that absolve you both such as, “We married too young”…or “We just weren’t compatible.” Divorced people who persist in blaming their exes or themselves are more likely to struggle in future relationships as well.


All long-term relationships go through ruts when nothing new happens. If those ruts are allowed to persist for years, the result can be boredom—and boredom increases the odds of divorce.

What to do: Inject passion and excitement into your marriage. Three potential ways to do that…

Add a new shared activity. Take a new class together or travel together to an unfamiliar location. Doing new things together mimics the feelings of adventure and passion that you experienced back in the exciting early days of the relationship.

Add mystery and surprise. Leave a love note for your spouse in an unexpected place or plan a weekend getaway for the two of you without telling your partner where you’re going.

Add adrenaline. Ride a roller coaster together…see a scary movie together…or exercise together. Anything that gets your heart racing and adrenaline pumping will release chemicals into your brain similar to those experienced by people who are passionately in love. Do such things together with your spouse a few times, and these chemicals could help rekindle your passion, excitement and sexual arousal for each other.