Predicting divorce Family: Researchers can forecast marital failure

now they want to teach couples to succeed.

August 16, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

CRYSTAL CITY, VA. LTCGR: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION — CRYSTAL CITY, Va. - The lights dim, and soon two couples are arguing on a color television screen, their 26-inch-wide confrontations petty, irritating, embarrassing - in other words, classic married life.

One woman is upset that her husband watches football all weekend. "It's not right," she tells her spouse, who can only shrug and look heavenward. The other wife scolds her husband for "not once in 10 years" pouring detergent into the washing machine before putting in a load of dirty laundry.

The video ends, and Professor Howard Markman poses the big question: "So which of these couples is going to divorce?" The audience of marriage counselors sniffs it out pretty easily: Mr. and Mrs. Tide.

Their conversation was too negative, too accusatory, too unforgiving, they say. At one point, the husband claims he had "not really thought" about when laundry detergent should be dispensed.

"Whatever you do," Markman says with a grin, "if you've been hearing about something for 10 years, don't tell your wife you've never thought about it."

In this case, predicting divorce was no great trick. The couple's problems were far from subtle.

But in his research on marriage at the University of Denver's Center for Marital and Family Studies, Markman has done much better. After 21 years, he claims he can predict with an "80 to 90 percent" certainty when newlyweds are headed for unhappiness and divorce.

Forecasting divorce is not his goal, of course; preventing it is. But the fact that marital strife is so predictable demonstrates what Markman espouses: Teach people how to be married, and you raise the odds of success.

"It's far easier to keep happy couples happy than rescue them from the brink of divorce," he says. "There's always magic and chemistry at the beginning of a relationship. The key is to help couples avoid doing things that actively erode the chemistry."

Speaking last month to a gathering of family therapists, researchers and advocates at a national conference on marriage in a Washington suburb, Markman and fellow psychologists at the Denver center explained how various factors - some beyond a couple's control - can spell doom for a relationship.

Were your parents divorced? Have you or your spouse been divorced previously? Are you different religions? Are you poor? Younger than age 26 when you married?

Answer yes to any of these and your odds at a successful marriage are diminished. Even living together before marriage - something nearly two-thirds of all couples do - can elevate your chances for divorce by 15 percent, Markman said.

"Being less committed makes them less resistant to divorce," said psychologist Scott Stanley, a colleague at the Denver center. "For them, marriage becomes less important, less special."

Even more critical are what Markman calls the "dynamic" factors. Using extensive questionnaires and videotaped interviews researchers study how couples relate to each other in considerable detail.

Do they avoid conflict? Do they not communicate effectively? Are their arguments highly negative or accusatory? Has there been physical abuse? Do they have irrational expectations of marriage or their partners? Is there a lack of commitment or motivation?

While the static factors like divorce history or religion are unchangeable, couples can do something about the dynamic factors, the researchers note.

Improving a marriage doesn't necessarily require complete personality overhauls, either. The Denver researchers have developed a program that requires just 12 hours over three days to complete.

Called PREP for "Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program," the workshop teaches couples how to communicate more effectively and manage conflicts. It is not unique, Markman noted. Other courses with similar goals have sprung up across the country as part of a "marriage education" movement.

The results are encouraging. Couples who completed the PREP course in one five-year Denver study were one-sixth as likely to divorce as those who hadn't.

But critics point out that such studies tend to be flawed - couples are not selected at random, and those who seek marriage education are probably less likely to divorce anyway. Even Markman admits that more long-term studies are needed.

Nevertheless, the fact that the risks of divorce can be predicted so easily shouldn't be discouraging: Growing numbers of studies strongly suggest couples can at least improve their odds at happiness.

"You have to make your partner and your marriage an important priority in your life," Markman said. "Go out and have fun. But you also have to treasure your partner, honor your partner."

Relationship Red Light

Can your relationship be saved? Denver researchers use this test to predict whether relationships are headed for trouble. Evaluate the following statements for yourself, not your partner, using a 3-point scale:

1 = almost never

2 = once in a while

3 = frequently

* Little arguments escalate into ugly fights with accusations, criticisms, name-calling or bringing up past hurts.

* My partner criticizes or belittles my opinions, feelings or desires.

* My partner seems to view my words or actions more negatively than I mean them to be.

* When we have a problem to solve, it is as if we were on opposite teams.

* I hold back from telling my partner what I really think and feel.

* I think seriously about what it would be like to date or marry someone else.

* I feel lonely in this relationship.

* When we argue, one of us withdraws - that is, doesn't want to talk about it anymore or leaves the scene.

In a nationwide survey, the average score was 11. If you scored 13-17, it suggests "yellow light," a need to strengthen the relationship. Eighteen and higher is a red light, an indication that your relationship is at significant risk.

Source: PREP Educational Products Inc.

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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