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Questions to Determine if You are At Risk for a Divorce
If you answer "yes" to these questions, then you are statistically a higher risk for divorce than couples who have realistic expectations of one another and their marriage, communicate well, use conflict resolution skills, and are compatible with one another.
Did you marry at an early age?
If you wait until you are at least 25 years old to get married, your chances of having a successful marriage increase.
Did you not graduate from high school?
Individuals who are educated have lower divorce rates.
Are you in a low-income bracket?
Money makes a difference. If your incomes together are at least $50,000, you have a 68% chance of reaching your 15th wedding anniversary.
Are you in an inter-faith marriage?
This doesn't necessarily doom your marriage, but it is important that you are each devoted to your own faiths and that you don't try to convert one another.
Did your parents divorce?
Your divorced parents raise your odds of getting a divorce by 14%. This isn't something you can change, but your awareness of the issues their divorce created in your life can make a difference in your own marriage.
Do you criticize or nag one another?
Don't. Lack of respect and lack of affirmation can tear the two of you apart quickly.
Does your spouse refuse to share chores around the house?
This is a huge red flag. Many spouses won't put up with carrying the whole load of chores alone for the long term.
Did you attend a premarital education class?
Attending premarital classes or counseling cuts a couple's odds of getting a divorce by a third. You can still get marriage education by attending marriage encounters or workshops.
Are you in a second marriage?
If your communication skills are lacking, dealing with the issues of ex-spouses and stepchildren can create a lot of division in your marriage.
Are you dealing with infidelity, alcoholism, drug issues, or physical abuse?
Without professional help, your marriage probably doesn't have a chance.
We've noticed on the Marriage Forum that there is a pattern to the marital problems and issues that people share. Here's our list of the top ten things that you need to try and avoid in your own marriage.
Lack of Respect
Don't badmouth your spouse to your friends or associates. Spouses need to be thanked. They need to know they are appreciated.
Not Listening to Your Spouse
This includes allowing your mind to wander, paying more attention to the computer or television set, ignoring body language, and interrupting.
Lack of Sexual Intimacy
This is a death knell for a marriage. Seek medical counsel and therapeutic counseling if necessary. Don't leave your spouse wondering why you aren't interested in sex.
Always Having to Be Right
This includes lecturing your mate, or having to have the last word. Very few people can love a know-it-all forever. Admit when you make a mistake or that you don't have all the answers. Don't answer every simple question with a long-winded dissertation on the topic.
Not Walking the Talk
Actions do speak louder than words. When you say you'll do something, do it. When you say you won't do something, follow through.
If your spouse says the teasing is hurtful, considers it a put down, or thinks that it is inappropriate, then stop it. Claiming that your spouse doesn't have a sense of humor or is too sensitive is being inconsiderate and unkind.
Having lies and secrets in your relationship can create distance and lack of trust between the two of you.
This includes continuing to have gross personal hygiene habits, or always being late, or nitpicking everything your spouse does, etc. It is when you know you are annoying and you continue to annoy.
Being Selfish or Greedy
This is when you spend money on yourself, but make a big deal if your spouse spends a dime. This is not wanting to open your home to friends and family because you prefer to be alone and don't want the hassle of entertaining. This is hogging the remote, only going to cheap restaurants when you could afford better, or not watching movies your spouse wants to see.
Having Temper Tantrums
Every couple needs to be able to handle conflict in a constructive way. Having an angry outburst so that you can win an argument will make you the loser in the end.
Will Your Marriage Last?
Studies show that the newlywed years can foretell the long-term outcome of almost every marriage. What do your newlywed years predict for you?
What if I told you that there is a man in America who can predict, from the outset, whether or not 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 American Psychological Association convention in Boston. Ted Huston, Ph.D., 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 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 ways?
Since 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 Nell 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 importantly, 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 importantly, 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 over 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 the 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, Ph.D., 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. In college, when we wanted to move in together, we thought our parents would be more approving if we got engaged first. So we did, even though we weren't completely sold on the idea of marriage.
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
While 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 spoil the rest of their lives."
And while 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 really 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 January 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 three and a half 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 world 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.
BLISS OR BUST?