Why do marriages end in divorce? A cognitive explanation

Travis DixonCognitive Psychology, Human Relationships, Love and Marriage

How we attribute (explain) our partner's behaviour can have a serious effect on the quality of our relationship.

The material in this post will help students who are studying for the Human Relationships option and want to make sure they can answer any possible question about the topic: “Personal relationships.”

The material in this post is adapted from our revision textbook.

Understanding why marriages may deteriorate and end in divorce is key in preparing to answer questions relating to the topic “why relationships may change or end. Perhaps the most commonly studied factor is communication and Gottman’s research is highly relevant (and recommended) when answering this question. However, students may be asked about the relationship between the cognitive approach and personal relationships. This is why if they’re preparing only this topic, they should have at least one or two studies to use that focus specifically on cognition.

Read more:

Exam Tip: In Paper Two you will be asked one question from all three topics in each approach. This means you are guaranteed one question about Personal relationships, so you can prepare to answer any question from this topic only and skip (or skim) the others.


Cognitive Explanations for Why Relationships Change or End:

People And Relationships Concept. African American Couple Arguin

How we attribute (explain) the behaviour of our partner’s can have a serious effect on the quality of our relationships.

The study of attributions looks at how people explain behaviour. In the field of marriage and marital satisfaction, attributions are one of the most commonly studied cognitive factor and decades of research has found that how couples make attributions can affect their marital satisfaction

If someone makes a positive attribution it means they think the reason for their partner’s good behaviour is due to internal factors (e.g. their personality) and bad behaviour is attributed to external factors (e.g. the actions of others). A negative attribution is the opposite – good behaviour is a result of external factors and bad behaviour is blamed on the person (internal factors). Not surprisingly, couples who make positive attributions tend to have higher marital satisfaction, while those that make negative attributions tend to be less satisfied.

For example, a husband is waiting at the train station and his wife is late. A negative attribution would be thinking “she’s always late and she just don’t care enough about me to get here on time.” In this scenario, the husband is attributing his wife’s lateness to an internal factor  – her feelings about him and her general disposition (a tardy person). Understandably, this type of attribution could lead to short and long-term reductions in marital satisfaction because we’re finding flaws in our partner and blaming them for things that make us unhappy. According to the research, a more beneficial attribution would be thinking something like “maybe my wife’s late because the trains are delayed or perhaps she got held up at work.” Here we see the explanation (attribution) for the behaviour is situational, i.e. other people or factors are being blamed for the negative behaviour. This is one way of making positive attributions – blaming external factors for bad behaviours.

The above example is based on a negative behaviour (being late). Can you think of examples of negative and positive attributions for a positive behaviour?

KEY STUDY: Effects of Attributions on Marital Satisfaction (Fincham et al., 2000) 

Aim: One aim of this study was to measure correlations between attributions and marital satisfaction.

Why did he forget her birthday? If she thinks it’s because he’s selfish, this is not a good attribution to make. According to the research, she’d be better off thinking something like that it was because his work is putting him under too much pressure.


  • Participants were 130 mostly white couples from small towns in the Mid-West USA, who had been married for 15-20 months, .
  • Marital satisfaction was measured using the Quality Marriage Index (QMI) and data was collected over three times using questionnaires during an 18th month time period.


  • One result showed that marital satisfaction was negatively correlated with causal attributions at the beginning of the study (-.44) and after 18 months (-.41).


  • When partners make a negative attribution of their partner’s behaviour (e.g. by explaining a negative behaviour was due to dispositional and internal factors) their marital satisfaction decreases.
  • This finding supports many other studies that show the same thing – how we attribute our partner’s behaviour can affect our marital satisfaction, which is one reason why relationships might deteriorate and eventually end in divorce.

Attributions act as a buffer between stress and marital satisfaction

Some couples endure stress and difficult times but they seem to come out stronger as a result. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” seems to be their motto. However, other couples can experience just as much stress but end up being worse off. Why?

Resilience to stress could be a result of how couples make attributions – a cognitive process that involves thinking about the reasons for a particular behaviour. As we saw earlier, research has shown that negative marital attributions have a negative effect on relationships. Similarly, other studies have shown that couples who can make positive attributions for their partner’s behaviour are able to maintain marital satisfaction despite experiencing stressful events that might strain the marriage.

KEY STUDY: Marital attributions, stress & marital quality (Graham and Conoley, 2006)

Aim: To see if stress affected marital quality, but also if couples’ attributions could moderate this effect (i.e. increase or decrease it).

Couples who make positive attributions are less vulnerable to the effects of stress on their relationship.


  • The participants were 58 mostly white(93%) middle-class couples from Texas, USA.
  • Stress was measured using a standard measure of stress experienced in the past 12 months. Attributions were measured by giving 10 hypothetical situations and asking participants how they would attribute (explain) this behaviour if it was done by their partner, including if they would attribute the behaviour to an internal or external cause.
  • The measure of marital quality was also measured using standard questionnaires.


  • The results supported the researchers’ hypothesis that the attribution style would moderate the relationship between stressful events and marital satisfaction. In other words, stressful events had less of an impact on marital satisfaction for those couples who were more likely to make positive attributions of their partner’s behaviour, compared with those who were more likely to make negative attributions.


  • Attributions can act as a buffer between stress and marital satisfaction.


We can see that the cognitive process of attributing our partner’s behaviour to either positive or negative factors can influence our marital satisfaction. It might also help reduce the negative effects of stress that all couples will experience from time to time. So the next time your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, lover, whoever arrives late or forgets your birthday, you might be best to think of all the reasons beyond their control that could explain it!


The above studies and examples can be used by IB Psychology students to answer questions about the following topics:

  • Why relationships change or end
  • Cognitive factors in personal relationships
  • Research methods used in studies on personal relationships (correlational studies)
  • Ethical considerations in studies on personal relationships

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • The above studies are correlational. How does this limit the conclusions we can make? For example, we could conclude that attributions influence marital satisfaction, but could the relationship be explained in the other direction?
  • The participants in these studies are typical of many in psychology – they are white, middle class Americans. How or why does this affect the generalizability of these studies?


  • Fincham FD, Harold GT, Gano-Phillips S. The longitudinal association between attributions and marital satisfaction: direction of effects and role of efficacy expectations. Journal of Family Psychology. 2000 Jun;14 (2):267-85. (Link)
  • Graham, J.M., & Conoley, C.W. (2006). The role of marital attributions in the relationship between life stressors and marital quality. (Link)