Item from the Smart
Marriages Archive, reproduced in the Divorce Statistics
WILL YOUR MARRIAGE LAST?
A NEW QUIZ REVEALS THAT THE NEWLYWED YEARS CAN PREDICT THE LONG-TERM
OF ALMOST EVERY MARRIAGE
By Aviva Patz, Psychology Today. Aviva Patz is the executive editor of
April 23, 2000
What if I told you that there is a man in America who can predict, from
outset, whether your marriage will last? He doesn't need to hear you
he doesn't need to know what you argue about. He doesn't even care
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
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
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
Fresh out of college I had gotten married -- and burned. Some part of me
still reeling from three years of waking up angry every morning, not
to go home after work, feeling lonely even as my then-husband sat beside
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
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
of Adaptation in Intimate Relationships (the PAIR Project) in 1981, in
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,
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
negative feelings for each other and observed how those feelings changed
time. Are newlyweds who hug and kiss more likely than other couples to
happy marriage, he wondered, or are they particularly susceptible to
if their romance dissipates? Are newlyweds who bicker destined to part?
Because one in two marriages ends in divorce in this country, there ought
be tons of research explaining why. But the existing literature provides
pieces of the larger puzzle.
Past research has led social scientists to believe that newlyweds begin
life together in romantic bliss and can then be brought down by their
inability to navigate the issues that inevitably crop up during the
When Benjamin Karny and Thomas Bradbury did a comprehensive review of the
literature in 1995, they confirmed studies such as those of John Gottman
Neil Jacobson, maintaining that the best predictors of divorce are
interactive difficulties, such as frequent expressions of antagonism,
respect for each other's ideas and similar interpersonal issues.
But most of this research was done on couples who had been married a
of years, with many of them already well on their way to divorce. It came
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
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
from blissfully in love. Second, couples whose marriages begin in
bliss are particularly divorce-prone because such intensity is too hard
maintain. Believe it or not, marriages that start out with less
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;
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
loss of love and affection, not the emergence of interpersonal issues,
sends couples journeying toward divorce.
By the end of Huston's study in 1994, the couples looked a lot like the
of America, falling into four groups. They were either married and happy;
married and unhappy; divorced early, within seven years; or divorced
after seven years--and each category showed a distinct pattern.
Those who remained happily married were very "in love" and affectionate
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,
many couples who divorced later were very affectionate as newlyweds, they
gradually became less loving, more negative and more critical of their
Indeed, Huston found that how well spouses got along as newlyweds
their future, but the major distinguishing factor between those who
and those who remained married was the amount of change in the
during its first two years.
"The first two years are key--that's when the risk of divorce is
high," he says. "And the changes that take place during this time
lot about where the marriage is headed."
What surprised Huston most was the nature of the changes that led to
The experiences of the 56 participating couples who divorced showed that
of initial levels of love and affection, rather than conflict, was the
salient predictor of distress and divorce. This loss sends that
into a downward spiral, leading to increased bickering and fighting, and
the collapse of the union.
"This ought to change the way we think about the early roots of what
wrong in marriage," Huston said. "The dominant approach has been
couples to resolve conflict, but it should focus on preserving the
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
"My own research speaks to `loss of intimacy,' in the sense that when
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
as they do. That feeling sometimes fades, and when it does, it can take
heavy toll on the marriage."
Social science has a name for that fading dynamic: "disillusionment."
initially put their best foot forward, ignoring each other's--and the
relationship's--shortcomings. But after they tie the knot, hidden aspects
their personalities emerge, and idealized images give way to more
ones. This can lead to disappointment, loss of love and, ultimately,
When marriage fails
The story of Peter and Suzie, participants in the PAIR Project, shows
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.
month, the two considered themselves an exclusive couple. Peter said
"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
By the time they strolled down the aisle on Valentine's Day in 1981,
and Suzie had dated only nine months, experiencing many ups and downs
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
Sure enough, reality soon set in for Peter and Suzie. Within two years,
was less satisfied with almost every aspect of their marriage. She
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
driven by external circumstances. For this pair, events related to
jealousy propelled the relationship forward. He was the force behind
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
each other, setting them up for disappointment. That disappointment
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
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
hair, wore a leather jacket, played guitar and adored the same obscure
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
happy living on a hippie commune.
The road to divorce was paved early, by the end of the first year: I had
I wanted us to spend more time together; he accused me of trying to keep
from his hobbies, and told me, in so many words, to "get a life."
and two years later, he wasn't in it.
When marriage succeeds
Although the disillusionment model best describes those who divorce,
found that another model suits those who stay married, whether or not
are happy: The "enduring dynamics model," in which partners establish
patterns of behavior early and maintain them over time, highlights
in the relationship--the feature that distinguishes those who remain
from those who eventually split up.
The major difference between the unhappily married couples and their
counterparts is simply that they have a lower level of satisfaction
the board. Yet, oddly enough, this relative unhappiness by itself does
doom the marriage.
"We have a whole group of people who are stable in unhappy marriages
necessarily dissatisfied," Huston said. "It's just a different
marriage. It's not that they're happy about their marriage; it's just
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
to "working partnership." And when conflict does arise, they diffuse
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"
take her anywhere." Nancy said John always complimented her and liked
things she enjoyed, things "other guys wouldn't do."
During their courtship, they spent a lot of time together, going to
their high school and hanging out with friends. They became comfortable
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
you're going to get one." And she did. The two married on Jan. 17,
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
intimacy. A three-year courtship enabled them to paint realistic
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
about politics. Both felt they strongly benefited from the marriage and
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.
That's one of the things that first set my husband apart. At the close of
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,"
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
Sometimes I wonder: Knowing what I know now, could I have saved my first
Probably not. Huston's research suggests that the harbingers of disaster
present even before my wedding day. And he blames our culture. Unlike
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
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
it. He has few kind words for Hollywood, which brings us unrealistic,
So if your new romance starts to resemble a movie script, try to
The audience never sees what happens after the credits roll.
Are you headed for bliss or a bust-up?
Marriages Archive | New Divorce
Statistics and Studies Blog | Older Divorce
Statistics Collection Archive |