Will marriage last until 'death do us part'? Researchers uncover some telltale signs

Among the factors: age of bride, styles of communication

July 21, 2002|By Staci Sturrock | Staci Sturrock,Cox News Service

Aeronautical engineers can send men, women and monkeys to the moon, and explain space travel in mind-spinning detail.

But what makes a marriage fly? Even the most Einsteinian of rocket scientists can't answer that one.

Forty-three percent of marriages end in separation or divorce within the first 15 years. In a study released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data showed that one in three first marriages ends before the 10th anniversary and one in five is over before five years is up.

The researchers, however, discovered clues that hint toward a couple's chances for long-term marital success.

The study revealed that the length of a first marriage is linked to a woman's age; the older she is, the longer that marriage is likely to last.

In the new book For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsid-ered (Norton), based on almost three decades of researching 1,400 families, certain types of marriage were identified as potentially longer-lasting than others.

The most divorce-prone was dubbed by authors E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly "the Pursuer-Distancer Mar-riage." This coupling "unites two conflicting but widespread male and female styles" of communication.

Raised to value intimacy, women are usually eager to discuss problems and feelings. Brought up to value stoicism and control, men are more comfortable avoiding confrontation and arguments.

The result: The more she pursues discussions, the more he withdraws. "In the long run," the authors write, "the male-female tug-of-war over communication and intimacy eats up so much goodwill that the marital bank account goes into overdraft."

Conversely, the marriages with the highest rate of success were "the Cohesive / Individuated Marriage," a union characterized by gender equity, a value held dear by baby boomers, and "the Traditional Marriage."

The health of the latter, which was the norm before the sexual revolution, depends on a generations-old interpretation of gender roles. "The Achilles' heel of Traditional Marriage is change," Hetherington and Kelly write. But, "Traditionalists are reluctant to divorce; they will put up with many irritations in order to maintain the integrity of the family."

According to research by Ted L. Houston, professor of human ecology and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, the first two years of marriage are key in predicting the future success of the union. Some of his findings indicate that newlyweds whose marriages are steeped in romantic bliss are particularly prone to divorce, simply because it's difficult to maintain that kind of emotional intensity. Also, the road to divorce is marked more by a loss of love and affection, not by nascent, nagging interpersonal issues.

The PAIR Project, or the Processes of Adaptation in Intimate Relationships Project, was begun in 1979 at Pennsyl- vania State University. The long-term study was launched with 168 couples, and it followed them through their courtships and early marital experiences.

PAIR's research indicates that elements leading to divorce appear during dating and become even more evident before the second wedding anniversary. A smattering of their findings, directly from their Web site:

* "Women who sense future problems while they are courting generally find out after they are married that their concern was well-founded."

* "Couples who are particularly lovey-dovey as newlyweds are likely to divorce."

* "Men with traits stereotyped as 'feminine' make better husbands.

* "The extent of differences in tastes and ideas among couples does not predict divorce. Some couples bury their concerns over such differences; others brood over them. Those who brood divorce."

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