Marriage may not be much of a gamble after all, at least not according to psychologists Sybil Carrère, Kim Buehlman and John Gottman. After following 95 Seattle-area couples for almost 10 years, the three University of Washington researchers say they. have developed a method of predicting, with 87 percent accuracy, which newlyweds will stay together and which will divorce.
For Carrère, 48, herself happily married for 18 years (Buehlman, 34, is single, and Gottman, 58, is married), there were few surprises in their study among the 16 couples that eventually split up. "Couples who endure give each other the benefit of the doubt during the most stressful times," says Carrère, whose study was published in the Journal of Family Psychology. "The others went sour quickly after their marriage." Carrère talked with PEOPLE about how to tell if a marriage will work.
How was your study conducted?
We started by interviewing couples six months after their marriages. Then we spoke with them once a year for 10 years. We asked open-ended questions about their philosophy of marriage, the history of their relationships, and their own parents' marriages. We were trying to measure the bond between them, so we asked thematic questions like "Tell us how you met and what you remember?" Or "Tell us about your first date? How did you decide to get married? Why did you decide that this was the person you wanted to marry?"
What responses forecast a lasting marriage?
Fondness and admiration for each other, for one thing. It's a good sign when a couple, without prompting, speaks with one voice about themselves as a "we." We listened for shared memories. How much the other person is painted into them and how pleasant the memories are suggests how much they like being with each other. Likewise, we were trying to determine how much they really knew about their partner's world, how much mental room they made for it.
But we weren't only interested in what they said, but how they said it. For instance, the amount of warmth they showed in talking about each other or the pride they took in their spouse were good gauges of how connected they were.
What are trouble signs?
Significant disagreements, carping and criticism predict problems. Within six months of getting married, some of those who eventually got divorced were already cynical about their relationships. They couldn't think of positives about their partner. In a sense, there were no assets in the emotional bank.
As time went on, what did you look for?
As important as how couples make decisions and the roles they establish is whether they have a similar perspective on these things and are mutually satisfied. We asked couples to characterize their marriages. Was it a "wild mountain road" or a "smooth, quiet path"? And we asked them to describe how their marriages had changed, what they now knew that they didn't when they first married. We asked what advice they would give a young couple to evaluate how much success or disappointment they felt.
So how couples view their marriage is key?
Yes, but so is the discrepancy in the view and a couple's tendency to argue about the history of their relationship. In a troubled relationship he'll say, "We met on a blind date," and she'll say, "That isn't how we met!" They have a hard time recalling what attracted them to each other or elaborating on good times.
Often, when couples talk about problems in their relationships, one will say, "She doesn't tell me when she's coming home; she needs to do that." So she does. Then something else emerges. "She always hangs her stockings on the shower curtain rod, and I don't like that." But what is really being said is, "My spouse doesn't care enough about what is important to me to change her behavior."
Any strategies for saving a troubled marriage?
If couples adopt a builder's perspective, they can construct even if things are shaky. Couples in successful marriages stay connected and current with their partner's goals and values. To do so, couples really need to devote time, on a regular basis, to renewing their friendship. Even one hour a week can make a big difference.
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