UW News

March 27, 2000

UW researchers can predict newlywed divorce, marital stability with 87 percent accuracy

Psychologists trying to determine why marriages flourish or end in divorce have refined a tool that predicts with 87 percent accuracy which newlywed couples will remain married and which will divorce four to six years later. It is also 81 percent accurate in predicting which marriages will survive after seven to nine years.

Perhaps more important, University of Washington researchers say it can be used in a one-hour interview by therapists and counselors to diagnose and measure the marital bond or friendship between a couple and their global perceptions of their marriage.

“What is amazing is that this tool works so strongly in predicting relationships ahead of time,” said Sybil Carr?, a UW research scientist and lead author of a new longitudinal study being published in the spring issue of the Journal of Family Psychology. “This study and a previous one of couples with young children show that it works with couples in different stages of the marital life span.”

The research was based on the Oral History Interview that was developed by UW psychology professor John Gottman, a co-author of the new study, and others. This interview is modeled after the methods of sociologist/reporter Studs Terkel and involves the use of a series of open-ended questions. The oral history coding system, which focuses on the way people answer the questions rather than on what they say, was developed by Kim Buehlman, another co-author of the study, who is a therapist and a UW research coordinator.

“How people talk, not the content, is the key,” said Buehlman. “People want to code the content, but you need to get under the content to measure marital bond. The coding system focuses on the positive or negative nature of what the spouses recall and how they refer to their partner.”

The interview explores the history of a couple’s relationship, the partners’ philosophy about marriage and how their parents’ marriages compare with their own. The history questions look at the couple’s courtship, wedding and the good and hard times of their marriage. Questions about marital philosophy ask for descriptions about good and bad marriages and seek to have the couple discuss the difference between the two.

In the new study, the UW researchers followed 95 newlywed couples from the greater Seattle region for seven to nine years. The couples, who were chosen to ethnically match the Puget Sound area, were recruited within the first six months of being married and were given the Oral History Interview during the first year of marriage. Between 1993 and 1998, follow-up telephone interviews and questionnaires were administered. In 1995 and 1998, the researchers looked at which couples were married and divorced.

“What is amazing about the coding system is that there is a pattern that emerges in the happiest and the least happy marriages,” said Carr?. “The happiest couples are speaking almost in one voice because they are so tuned into each other’s wants and desires. These people know the value of their partner in their life and know they are not out to get them. It is really beautiful music. With the unhappiest couples there is no symmetry. There is no respect for each other. Individuals are really nasty with each other and they struggle to find positive things to say about each other or the relationship.”

“Part of the marital bond is the global or perceptual filter couples have of the relationship,” added Buehlman. “If you have a strong marital bond, you give your partner a break when times are tough. With a strong bond, even if a couple doesn’t agree on something they find ways of avoiding destructive arguments because they really like each other and appreciate the differences. With a weak bond, you don’t give respect and kindness to your partner. There is a lot more disagreement and a lot less friendship.”

Earlier UW research, published in 1992, also indicated these global perceptions could be measured to predict the stability of marriage. It predicted with 94 percent accuracy which of 56 couples married four or five years and with a small child would remain married three years later.

The percentages in the newlywed study weren’t that high, something the researchers expected. They theorize that because the couples had a relatively short history of married experience the spouses’ perceptions of each other and the marriage may be in the process of forming or may be more variable as the partners adjust to each other. However, they note that the interview’s ability to predict stability and divorce is “provocative.”

Only 16 of the 95 couples (18 percent) in the study were divorced at the end of the study. That’s far below the U.S. average, which sees about one-third of marriages failing within the first five years and between one-half and two-thirds of all marriages ending in divorce. The low divorce rate among the study’s participants was not unexpected.

“The couples in this kind of study are self-selecting to a certain degree,” said Carr?. “We are attracting people who are excited about their marriage and want to show off their marriage. It is difficult to get distressed couples into a study like this.”

The study contains an important lesson for couples, according to the researchers.

“A lot of couples neglect the friendship in marriage and it erodes over time because of such things as career demands and having children,” Carr? said. “When you neglect friendship, the positive perceptual filter you have about your partner begins to fail. People need to make time to nurture their marriage, just like they take time to work out, for the health of the relationship.”

The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Co-authors of the study also included former UW undergraduates James Coan and Lionel Rucksthul, who are now doctoral students at the University of Arizona and the University of Nevada, Reno, respectively.

Based in part on what the Oral History Interviews have revealed about the marital bond, Gottman has developed a workshop for couples designed to help strengthen marriages. Follow-up research is being conducted to measure changes in behavior, physiology and perceptions associated with participation in the workshop.


For more information, contact Carr? at (206) 543-2968 or carrere@u.washington.edu or Buehlman at (206) 543-9200, ext. 2, or buehl@u.washington.edu