Item from the Smart Marriages Archive, reproduced in the Divorce Statistics Collection

WILL YOUR MARRIAGE LAST?
A NEW QUIZ REVEALS THAT THE NEWLYWED YEARS CAN PREDICT THE LONG-TERM
OUTCOME
OF ALMOST EVERY MARRIAGE

By Aviva Patz, Psychology Today. Aviva Patz is the executive editor of
Psychology Today.
April 23, 2000

What if I told you that there is a man in America who can predict, from
the
outset, whether your marriage will last? He doesn't need to hear you
arguing;
he doesn't need to know what you argue about. He doesn't even care
whether
you argue at all.

I was dubious, too, but I was curious enough to attend a lecture on the
subject at the most recent American Psychological Association convention
in
Boston. Ted Huston, a professor of human ecology and psychology at the
University of Texas at Austin, was showcasing the results of a long-term
study of married couples that pierces the heart of social psychological
science: the ability to forecast whether a husband and wife, two years
after
taking their vows, will stay together and whether they will be happy.

My press pass notwithstanding, I went to the seminar for reasons of my
own.
Fresh out of college I had gotten married -- and burned. Some part of me
was
still reeling from three years of waking up angry every morning, not
wanting
to go home after work, feeling lonely even as my then-husband sat beside
me.
I went because I have recently remarried and just celebrated my one-year
anniversary. Needless to say, I'd like to make this one work. So I
scribbled
furiously in my notebook, drinking in the graphs and charts -- for
psychology, for husbands and wives everywhere, but mostly for myself.

Huston, a pioneer in the psychology of relationships, launched the
Processes
of Adaptation in Intimate Relationships (the PAIR Project) in 1981, in
which
he followed 168 couples -- drawn from marriage license records in four
counties in a rural and working-class area of Pennsylvania -- from their
wedding day through 13 years of marriage. Through multiple interviews,
Huston
looked at the way partners related to one another during courtship, as
newlyweds and through the early years of marriage.

Were they "gaga"? Comfortable? Unsure? He measured their positive and
negative feelings for each other and observed how those feelings changed
over
time. Are newlyweds who hug and kiss more likely than other couples to
have a
happy marriage, he wondered, or are they particularly susceptible to
divorce
if their romance dissipates? Are newlyweds who bicker destined to part?

Because one in two marriages ends in divorce in this country, there ought
to
be tons of research explaining why. But the existing literature provides
only
pieces of the larger puzzle.

Past research has led social scientists to believe that newlyweds begin
their
life together in romantic bliss and can then be brought down by their
inability to navigate the issues that inevitably crop up during the
marriage.
When Benjamin Karny and Thomas Bradbury did a comprehensive review of the
literature in 1995, they confirmed studies such as those of John Gottman
and
Neil Jacobson, maintaining that the best predictors of divorce are
interactive difficulties, such as frequent expressions of antagonism,
lack of
respect for each other's ideas and similar interpersonal issues.

But most of this research was done on couples who had been married a
number
of years, with many of them already well on their way to divorce. It came
as
no surprise, then, that researchers thought their hostility toward one
another predicted the further demise of the relationship.

Huston's study was unique in that it looked at couples much earlier, when
they were courting and during the initial years of marriage, thus
providing
the first complete picture of the earliest stages of distress.

Its four main findings were quite surprising.

First, contrary to popular belief, Huston found that many newlyweds are
far
from blissfully in love. Second, couples whose marriages begin in
romantic
bliss are particularly divorce-prone because such intensity is too hard
to
maintain. Believe it or not, marriages that start out with less
"Hollywood
romance" usually have more promising futures.

Accordingly, and this is the third major finding, spouses in lasting but
lackluster marriages are not prone to divorce, as one might suspect;
their
marriages are less fulfilling to begin with, so there is no erosion of a
Western-style romantic ideal. Lastly, and perhaps most important, it is
the
loss of love and affection, not the emergence of interpersonal issues,
that
sends couples journeying toward divorce.

By the end of Huston's study in 1994, the couples looked a lot like the
rest
of America, falling into four groups. They were either married and happy;
married and unhappy; divorced early, within seven years; or divorced
later,
after seven years--and each category showed a distinct pattern.

Those who remained happily married were very "in love" and affectionate
as
newlyweds. They showed less ambivalence, expressed negative feelings less
often and viewed their mate more positively than other couples. Most
important, these feelings remained stable over time. By contrast,
although
many couples who divorced later were very affectionate as newlyweds, they
gradually became less loving, more negative and more critical of their
spouse.

Indeed, Huston found that how well spouses got along as newlyweds
affected
their future, but the major distinguishing factor between those who
divorced
and those who remained married was the amount of change in the
relationship
during its first two years.

"The first two years are key--that's when the risk of divorce is
particularly
high," he says. "And the changes that take place during this time tell us
a
lot about where the marriage is headed."

What surprised Huston most was the nature of the changes that led to
divorce:
The experiences of the 56 participating couples who divorced showed that
loss
of initial levels of love and affection, rather than conflict, was the
most
salient predictor of distress and divorce. This loss sends that
relationship
into a downward spiral, leading to increased bickering and fighting, and
to
the collapse of the union.

"This ought to change the way we think about the early roots of what goes
wrong in marriage," Huston said. "The dominant approach has been to work
with
couples to resolve conflict, but it should focus on preserving the
positive
feelings. That's a very important take-home lesson."

"Huston's research fills an important gap in the literature by suggesting
that there is more to a successful relationship than simply managing
conflict," said Harry Reis of the University of Rochester, a leading
social
psychologist.

"My own research speaks to `loss of intimacy,' in the sense that when
people
first become close they feel a tremendous sense of validation from each
other, like their partner is the only other person on Earth who sees
things
as they do. That feeling sometimes fades, and when it does, it can take a
heavy toll on the marriage."

Social science has a name for that fading dynamic: "disillusionment."
Lovers
initially put their best foot forward, ignoring each other's--and the
relationship's--shortcomings. But after they tie the knot, hidden aspects
of
their personalities emerge, and idealized images give way to more
realistic
ones. This can lead to disappointment, loss of love and, ultimately,
distress
and divorce.


When marriage fails

The story of Peter and Suzie, participants in the PAIR Project, shows
classic
disillusionment. When they met, Suzie was 24, a new waitress at the golf
course where Peter, then 26, played. He was "awed" by her beauty. After a
month, the two considered themselves an exclusive couple. Peter said
Suzie
"wasn't an airhead; she seemed kind of smart, and she's pretty."

Suzie said Peter "cared a lot about me as a person, and was willing to
overlook things."

By the time they strolled down the aisle on Valentine's Day in 1981,
Peter
and Suzie had dated only nine months, experiencing many ups and downs
along
the way.

Huston says couples are most vulnerable to disillusionment when their
courtship is brief. In a whirlwind romance, it's easy to paint an
unrealistically rosy picture of the relationship, one that cannot be
sustained.

Sure enough, reality soon set in for Peter and Suzie. Within two years,
Suzie
was less satisfied with almost every aspect of their marriage. She
expressed
less affection for Peter and felt her love decline continuously. She
considered him to have "contrary" traits, such as jealousy and
possessiveness, and resented his propensity to find fault with her.

Peter, for his part, was disappointed that his wife did not become the
flawless parent and homemaker he had envisioned.

Another danger sign for relationships is a courtship filled with drama
and
driven by external circumstances. For this pair, events related to
Peter's
jealousy propelled the relationship forward. He was the force behind
their
destroying letters and pictures from former lovers. It was a phone call
between Suzie and an old flame that prompted him to bring up the idea of
marriage in the first place. And it was a fit of jealousy--over Suzie's
claiming to go shopping and then coming home suspiciously late--that
convinced Peter he was ready to marry.

Theirs was a recipe for disaster: A short courtship, driven largely by
Peter's jealousy, enabled the pair to ignore flaws in the relationship
and in
each other, setting them up for disappointment. That disappointment
eroded
their love and affection, which soured their perception of each other's
personalities, creating feelings of ambivalence.

Ten years after saying "I do," the disaffected lovers were in the midst
of
divorce. When Suzie filed the papers, she cited as the primary reason a
gradual loss of love.

The parallels between Peter and Suzie's failed marriage and my own are
striking: My courtship with my first husband was short, also about nine
months. Like Peter, I had shallow criteria: This guy was cool; he had
long
hair, wore a leather jacket, played guitar and adored the same obscure
band
that I did.

When it came time to build a life together, however, we were clearly
mismatched. I wanted a traditional family with children; he would have
been
happy living on a hippie commune.

The road to divorce was paved early, by the end of the first year: I had
said
I wanted us to spend more time together; he accused me of trying to keep
him
from his hobbies, and told me, in so many words, to "get a life." Well I
did,
and two years later, he wasn't in it.


When marriage succeeds

Although the disillusionment model best describes those who divorce,
Huston
found that another model suits those who stay married, whether or not
they
are happy: The "enduring dynamics model," in which partners establish
patterns of behavior early and maintain them over time, highlights
stability
in the relationship--the feature that distinguishes those who remain
together
from those who eventually split up.

The major difference between the unhappily married couples and their
happy
counterparts is simply that they have a lower level of satisfaction
across
the board. Yet, oddly enough, this relative unhappiness by itself does
not
doom the marriage.

"We have a whole group of people who are stable in unhappy marriages and
not
necessarily dissatisfied," Huston said. "It's just a different model of
marriage. It's not that they're happy about their marriage; it's just
that
the discontent doesn't spill over and soil the rest of their lives."

And although all married couples eventually lose a bit of that honeymoon
euphoria, Huston notes, those who remain married don't consider this a
crushing blow, but rather a natural transition from "romantic
relationship"
to "working partnership." And when conflict does arise, they diffuse it
with
various constructive coping mechanisms.

Nancy and John, participants in Huston's study, are a shining example of
happy, healthy balance. They met in February 1978 and were immediately
attracted to each other. John said Nancy was "fun to be with" and he
"could
take her anywhere." Nancy said John always complimented her and liked to
do
things she enjoyed, things "other guys wouldn't do."

During their courtship, they spent a lot of time together, going to
dances at
their high school and hanging out with friends. They became comfortable
with
each other and began to openly disclose their opinions and feelings,
realizing they had a lot in common and enjoyed each other's company.

John paid many surprise visits to Nancy and bought her a number of gifts.
Toward the end of the summer, John gave Nancy a charm necklace with a
"genuine diamond." She recalls his saying: "This isn't your ring, honey,
but
you're going to get one." And she did. The two married on Jan. 17, 1981,
nearly three years after they began dating.

The prognosis for this relationship is good. Nancy and John have a "fine
romance"--a solid foundation of love and affection, built on honesty and
intimacy. A three-year courtship enabled them to paint realistic
portraits of
one another, lessening the chances of a rude awakening after marriage.

In 1994, when they were last interviewed, Nancy and John were highly
satisfied with their marriage. They were very compatible, disagreeing
only
about politics. Both felt they strongly benefited from the marriage and
said
they had no desire to leave.

When the seminar ends, I can't get to a pay phone fast enough. After two
rings, the phone is answered. He's there, of course. Dependable.
Predictable.
That's one of the things that first set my husband apart. At the close of
one
date, he'd lock in the next. "Can I see you tomorrow for lunch?"

"Will you have dinner with me next week?"

Unlike the fantasy-quality of my first marriage, I felt a deep sense of
comfort and companionship with him, and did not harbor outrageous
expectations. We exchanged vows 3 1/2 years later, in August, 1998.

There at the convention center, I try to tell my husband about Huston's
study, about the critical first few years, about "enduring dynamics," it
all
comes out in a jumble.

"You're saying we have a good marriage, that we're not going to get
divorced?" he asks.

"Yes," I say breathlessly, relieved of the burden of explanation.

"Well I'm glad to hear that," he says, "but I wasn't really worried."

Sometimes I wonder: Knowing what I know now, could I have saved my first
marriage?

Probably not. Huston's research suggests that the harbingers of disaster
were
present even before my wedding day. And he blames our culture. Unlike
many
other cultures, he says, Western society makes marriage the key adult
relationship, which puts a lot of pressure on people to marry.

"People feel they have to find a way to get there and one way is to force
it,
even if it only works for the time being," he says.

Our culture is also to blame, Huston says, for perpetuating the myth of
storybook romance, which is more likely to doom a marriage than
strengthen
it. He has few kind words for Hollywood, which brings us unrealistic,
unsustainable passion.

So if your new romance starts to resemble a movie script, try to
remember:
The audience never sees what happens after the credits roll.

Are you headed for bliss or a bust-up?



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