A divorce warning sign is intentionally being argumentative. This helps to create the emotional distance required for people to comfortably detach from their spouse.
There are two times in marriage when you would expect intentional argumentativeness. The first is at the beginning of marriage when the couple are adjusting to a thousand little differences. The second is when someone is preparing to end their marriage. The emotional distance created will help them to feel justified in divorcing or having an affair. If you play into your spouse’s argumentativeness, you will be helping your spouse to feel more comfortable to reject you.
When arguing is NOT a divorce warning sign
Everyone has a natural comfort level in terms of how much intimacy, physical contact, talking, and being together is good for them. They seek this level of contact in their relationships, and when they get it, they stop trying to get any closer. If their partner has a greater need for closeness, the partner will attempt to get closer, but the person with less of a need for closeness will re-create a comfortable distance. Often this happens by arguing about small, unimportant things. When the comfortable distance is again established, the arguing stops. It would be easy to confuse this with a divorce warning sign, but actually it is very different.
The test for whether your spouse is actually preparing for divorce (or an affair)
There is one clear difference between a spouse with less intimacy needs and a spouse who wants to divorce. If you pull away from a spouse with lower intimacy needs, he or she will actually draw closer to you. This is because he or she is seeking to maintain the same level of closeness. Not so with a spouse who is preparing for divorce. If you pull away from such a partner, they will not be drawn toward you, but will continue to distance. They are not seeking a comfortable level of distance, but are seeking as much distance as possible. Communication and interaction can drop to nearly zero. They are not trying to keep the same distance from you, but rather they are moving out of relationship with you or preventing a relationship with you. In this situation, it will be important to be able to recognize when your marriage is over. Deciding too soon or too late can both cause problems.
People seek consistency of thoughts, feelings, and behavior
People are emotional beings. They can’t just rationally decide to leave their partner due to incompatibility. They have to feel that they are incompatible, too. One way to do that is to intentionally be argumentative. You might buy your spouse a chocolate cake because you know that she loves it, but after you buy it she says, “Why did you buy that? I hate chocolate cake.” You will probably say, “I thought it was your favorite,” to which she might reply, “Well, not anymore, get it out of here—I don’t want to have to look at it.” You say, “Well, what do you want me to do with it, throw it away?” to which she says, “I don’t care what you do with it.” If she lets it go at that you will be lucky. The fact is that even if she knows how to agree and knows it would be good for your relationship, she no longer wants to. She doesn’t want you to be nice while she is preparing (mentally, if not physically) to leave you. Remember, people mentally check out of a relationship before they physically check out of it.
Don’t argue or push for connection
Should you argue with people when they are like that (distancing, cold, rejecting, and argumentative)? Not unless you want to speed up the demise of your relationship with them. However, if you try to be affectionate, plan dates, and have more pleasant talks with such a partner, they will reject you, reject you, reject you. They will push you to the point where you likely to argue with them in frustration, or else withdraw from them for self-protection. None of these actions will help you to slow down their drive to disconnect from you.
Lower resistance and build connection by getting on the same page
The most effective way to respond to your rejecting partner is by agreeing with your partner that your relationship is not good and has not been good for some time. By using the method of agreement, as described in my book, Connecting Through “Yes!” you will be able to bypass the resistance that you would otherwise get from your spouse. It allows you to start to reconnect with your spouse in a way that directly trying to build your relationship would not. Attempting to convince your partner to work on the relationship will get you resistance and distance; agreeing with your partner will create cooperation and connection. It may not be intuitive, but it is the only approach likely to work in this situation.