UW News

September 27, 1999

First three minutes of discussion about on-going area of marital conflict are predictive of divorce for newlyweds

University of Washington researchers who have been putting marriages under the equivalent of a microscope say it is possible to predict which newlywed couples will divorce from the way partners interact in just the first three minutes of a discussion about an area of continuing disagreement.

Couples who later divorced began these talks with significantly greater displays of negative emotions, words and gestures and fewer positive ones than did couples who remained married over the course of a six-year study. Results of that study, conducted by UW research scientist Sybil Carr? and psychology professor John Gottman, are being published in the fall issue of the journal Family Process.

“The biggest lesson to be learned from this study is that the way couples begin a discussion about a problem – how you present an issue and how your partner responds to you – is absolutely critical,” said Gottman.

“Women need to learn how to soften their approach when they bring up a problem,” added Carr?, “and men have to learn how to be more accepting of what she’s saying.”

Earlier research from Gottman’s laboratory and by other researchers indicates that women initiate discussions about problems about 80 percent of the time. In couples heading for divorce, the wife’s opening statement is usually in the form of a criticism (a global attack such as, “You’re lazy and never do anything around the house”) rather than a specific complaint (“You didn’t take out the trash last night”). Previous research conducted in the Gottman laboratory has shown that the husband’s initial reaction is either defensive in marriages heading for divorce or has shown him not escalating the negativity in more stable marriages.

In the newlywed study, the UW researchers found that the startup of the conflict discussion is key in predicting divorce or marital stability. In stable marriages, both husbands and wives expressed less negative affect and more positive affect at the very beginning of such discussions. All husbands became increasingly negative over the course of a 15-minute discussion, but husbands who eventually will be divorced became more negative more quickly. Husbands in stable marriage became somewhat more negative during the discussion but did not become less positive. Men who eventually will be divorced not only became increasingly negative but also were increasingly less positive. While women also became somewhat more negative as a discussion continued, differences for wives who divorced and stayed married did not diverge as they did for husbands.

To capture the nuances of marital discord, Carr? and Gottman videotaped problem discussions of 124 couples who had been married for less than nine months. The tapes were then coded using a computer-assisted system developed in the UW lab to index facial expressions, voice tone and speech content to characterize the emotions expressed by each couple. Coders categorized affects displayed using five positive codes (interest, validation, affection, humor and joy) and 10 negative affects (disgust, contempt, belligerence, domineering, anger, fear and tension, defensiveness, whining, sadness and stonewalling).

The couples, taped during a three-year period, mirrored the racial and ethnic makeup of the greater Seattle area. Couples filled out marital satisfaction questionnaires at the start of the study and represented an even distribution of marital satisfaction. At the end of the study, 17 of the couples had divorced.

Prior to having a taped discussion, couples reviewed areas of conflict with a member of the research team, who helped them choose a topic or topics for the session. Communication – people saying they missed their partner emotionally, weren’t being understood emotionally or weren’t feeling loved – was the most common theme of the marital discussions. Money and finances also were frequent topics.

“Part of what we were doing was showing people how to problem solve,” said Carr?. “It’s something they often have not done before and this might have been the first time they discussed a problem without being in the heat of battle. At home the same issue develops into a fight because the wife doesn’t know how to present a problem to her husband and the husband doesn’t know how to respond without becoming negative.”

“What typically happens,” adds Gottman, “is one person reaches out to the other to get the partner’s interest and it just falls flat. The basic problem is emotional connectedness, and people are just asking their partner to ‘show me you love me.’ Many people live in an emotional desert. That’s why they are so needy.”

For more information, contact Carr? at (206) 543-2968 or carrere@u.washington. To reach Gottman contact Virginia Rutter, who schedules his media interviews, at (206) 706-8413 or