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Predicting Which Marriages Will Fail--And When

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Forget visiting a fortune teller with a crystal ball. To really find out whether your marriage will last forever, ask John Gottman, professor in the UW Department of Psychology.

Gottman and a colleague at UC Berkeley, Professor Robert Levenson, say they can predict not only which couples will divorce but also when they will divorce. They have found two distinct patterns of dysfunctional marital interaction that seem to be predictive of divorce at different points during the life of a marriage. 

Researchers have known for some time that the initial critical period for divorce is the first seven years of marriage. The new study shows that the relationships of couples who divorce during this time can be characterized as volatile and laden with negative emotions, says Gottman, known nationally for his research on marital interaction. 

“Couples in the early divorce group are openly contesting and fighting with each other. There is an attack and defend mode with escalating conflict,” Gottman says. “They are physically aroused and have high heart rates. These couples are desperate and don’t know what’s wrong with their relationship. Many of these marriages end in quick bailouts or divorces.” 

The second critical time for divorce is in midlife, when couples often have young teenage children. Gottman says these marriages are far different, marked by coolness between partners and the suppression of emotions. He offers as an example the couple portrayed by Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in this year’s Academy Award-winning film American Beauty. 

Despite the volatile and suppressed character of these two types of marital behavior, Gottman says both types of marriage can benefit from marital therapy and don’t necessarily have to end.

“These couples are alienated and avoidant,” explains Gottman. “They are the people you see in a restaurant who are not talking to each other. They raise kids together, but there is not much going on with each other and they realize their marriage is empty. These couples stifle things and do not raise issues with their partner. Their marriages are a suppression of negative emotions and a lack of positive emotions. It is a very passive and distant relationship with no laughing, love, or interest in each other. This style of suppression can cause intense loneliness that’s almost like dying.” 

Gottman adds that the end of this type of marriage often coincides with a midlife crisis when one partner realizes his or her marriage, life, and/or job are empty and begins looking for something better. Teenage children are important in the scenario of alienation, and there is sometimes an alliance of a parent and same-sex child against the other parent, much as the mother and daughter were allied against the father in American Beauty

To explore the dynamics of divorce, Gottman and Levenson recruited a sample of couples that reflected the range of marital satisfaction. They followed 79 couples from Bloomington, Indiana for 14 years, starting in 1983. At the start of the study the couples had been married an average of five years and were fairly young. Husbands averaged 31 years of age, wives 29 years. By the end of the study, 22 couples—or 28 percent—had divorced. 

Each couple began the study by filling out several questionnaires measuring marital satisfaction. They also participated in a marital oral history interview and came to a laboratory to hold conversations about the events of their day, a topic of ongoing conflict, and a pleasant topic. Couples were videotaped and their physiological responses were monitored during these conversations. They were contacted four years later in 1987, asked about their marital status, and given the marital satisfaction questionnaires again. By then, 9 percent of the couples had divorced. The remaining married couples were periodically contacted through 1997. 

Despite the volatile and suppressed character of these two types of marital behavior, Gottman says both types of marriage can benefit from marital therapy and don’t necessarily have to end.

“Therapists dread dealing with couples who are in very hot relationships and battling with each other. But they are actually easier to work with because there is still fire in the marital relationship,” he says. “With the later-divorcing couples who are suppressing emotions and avoiding each other, a therapist can work with failed dreams, individually and as a couple, to rebuild the relationship. These marriages can have a renaissance. Without therapy, partners just blame each other for their alienation.”