True test of love: Will marriage work for you?

November 06, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

They were young and in love. But, alas, they were also human. He was selfish. She was immature. He hated to fight. She was like a pit bull when they did. And even though they were preparing to marry, both wanted to keep separate friends, separate social calendars, separate lives.

Can this engagement be saved?

Not according to a 125-question quiz the Columbia couple took just months before the big day.

In nearly every category -- from communication to finances -- they came up short. After two tearful sessions with the pastor who gave them the survey, they called the whole thing off.

Increasingly, couples are putting their relationships to the test. With pencil and paper, they are filling in the blanks about love, sex and who takes out the trash. From the results, social scientists say they can predict with up to 94 percent accuracy whether two people will survive the risky business of marriage.

* In a study by University of Washington psychologist John Gottman, he correctly predicted that seven of his 56-couple sample would divorce within three years. His method -- a 14-question interview, a videotape session and polygraph equipment to measure physical responses -- was on the mark 94 percent of the time.

* Using a computer-analyzed inventory, David H. Olson, a University of Minnesota psychologist, completed a study of 148 married or engaged couples that determined at least 80 percent of the time who would divorce. His survey is now used by 20,000 counselors and clergy around the country.

* At the University of Denver, psychologist Howard Markman followed 150 couples, some for 12 years, testing communication skills. He showed the probability of divorce with 93 percent accuracy.

In a culture obsessed with test-taking, it's no surprise that these results have generated high interest, particularly among those eager to beat the marital odds. Happily engaged couples and therapy-phobic men are now more receptive to counseling, say some psychologists, because they have watched many trips to the altar wind up in divorce court.

"What other thing would you enter into knowing that the probable failure rate is 50 percent?" asks Dr. Olson, who heads the Marital and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota.

But rather than sound like doomsayers for marriage, these psychologists say their work can help couples see strengths and weaknesses in their relationships -- and focus on problems before they become crises.

"These [tests] help people get beyond the ideals of marital love to the hard realities of marital life," says the Rev. D. Walter Collett, pastor of the Covenant Baptist Church in Columbia. Dr. Olson's premarriage quiz is required for any couple who wants to wed there.

"Another way to think about it is that we're doing a diagnosis of cancer," says Dr. Olson. "With many cases if they go untreated, things become terminal."

One of the most startling results in Dr. Gottman's research was the husband's role in divorce. The husband's disappointment with the marriage was the single greatest predictor of divorce. Another surprise was that couples who fought a lot were not more likely to split up. And neither were those who had faced rocky times.

"How people looked at their problems determined their future," says Kim Therese Buehlman, a member of Dr. Gottman's research team. "Perception had alot to do happiness. Some couples who had lots of problems glorified the struggle."

The first challenge for some counselors is getting people to believe the results. Mr. Collett has given Dr. Olson's surveys -- Prepare is for unmarried twosomes and Enrich is for married couples -- more than 100 times. During feedback sessions with the scored tests, couples are sometimes incredulous, he says.

"It's like the first time you listen to your voice on a tape recorder," he says. "It's you, but it doesn't sound like you."

But many ultimately are glad to have their doubts confirmed. Two couples canceled their weddings and two other married couples divorced after taking the surveys, he says. Dr. Olson has found that as many as 10 percent of engaged couples delay marriage after taking his inventory.

"One of the hardest things is having the courage to say, 'It's probably not going to work, folks,' " says Mr. Collett. "But I feel like in those cases we successfully prevented a bad marriage."

Some of the research findings about wedded bliss might be easier to guess. In Dr. Markman's work, arguments most often centered around three things: money, sex and communication. And women often complained that their husbands were uncommunicative; men said there was too much conflict in their lives together.

"We're now able to say that we can actually increase relationship happiness by helping people learn how to handle conflict better," he says.

But he, and others, caution against seeing these quizzes as an easy way out.

OC "I get concerned that tests can make it sound too simple. These

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