UW News

September 11, 2000

Marital researchers now can predict not only which couples will divorce but when they will split

Researchers studying the state of American marriages now can predict not only which couples will divorce but also when they will divorce.

Writing in the current issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family, psychologists from the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley, have found two distinct patterns of dysfunctional marital interaction that seem to be predictive of divorce at different points during the life of a marriage.

Researchers have known for some time that the initial critical period for divorce is the first seven years of marriage. The new study shows that the relationships of couples who divorce during this time can be characterized as volatile and laden with negative emotions, said John Gottman, UW professor of psychology and lead author. The second critical time for divorce is in midlife, when couples often have young teenage children. Gottman said these marriages are far different, marked by coolness between partners and the suppression of emotions.

Gottman and his colleague, UC Berkeley psychology professor Robert Levenson, compiled the data after following 79 couples from Bloomington, Ind., for 14 years, starting in 1983. At the end of the study, 22 couples, or 28 percent, had divorced.

The marital dynamics between couples in the early and midlife divorces were strikingly different, according to Gottman.

“Couples in the early divorce group are openly contesting and fighting with each other. There is an attack and defend mode with escalating conflict,” Gottman said. “They are physically aroused and have high-heart rates. These couples are desperate and don’t know what’s wrong with their relationship. Many of these marriages end in quick bailouts or divorces.”

A typical midlife divorcing couple was portrayed by Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening in this year’s Academy Award-winning film “American Beauty.”

“These couples are alienated and avoidant. They are the people you see in a restaurant who are not talking to each other,” he said. “They raise kids together, but there is not much going on with each other and they realize their marriage is empty. These couples stifle things and do not raise issues with their partner. Their marriages are a suppression of negative emotions and a lack of positive emotions. It is a very passive and distant relationship with no laughing, love or interest in each other. This style of suppression can cause intense loneliness that’s almost like dying.”

The end of this type of marriage often coincides with a midlife crisis when one partner realizes his or her marriage, life and/or job are empty and begins looking for something better. Gottman added that teenage children are important in the scenario of alienation, and there is sometimes an alliance of a parent and same-sex child against the other parent, much as the mother and daughter were allied against the father in “American Beauty.”

To explore the dynamics of divorce, Gottman and Levenson recruited a sample of couples that reflected the range of marital satisfaction. At the start of the study in 1983, the couples had been married an average of five years and were fairly young. Husbands averaged 31 years of age, wives 29 years. Each couple filled out several questionnaires measuring their marital satisfaction, participated in a marital oral history interview and came to a laboratory to hold conversations about the events of their day, a topic of ongoing conflict and a pleasant topic. Couples were videotaped and their physiological responses were monitored during these conversations.

They were contacted four years later in 1987, asked about their marital status and given the marital satisfaction questionnaires again. By then, 9 percent of the couples had divorced. The remaining married couples were periodically contacted through 1997.

Gottman said despite the volatile and suppressed character of these two types of material behavior, both types of marriage can benefit from marital therapy and don’t necessarily have to end.

“Therapists dread dealing with couples who are in very hot relationships and battling with each other. But they are actually easier to work with because there is still fire in the marital relationship,” he said. “With the later-divorcing couples who are suppressing emotions and avoiding each other, a therapist can work with failed dreams, individually and as a couple, to rebuild the relationship. These marriages can have a renaissance. Without therapy, partners just blame each other for their alienation.”

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.
For additional information, contact Gottman through Virginia Rutter, who schedules his media interviews, at (206) 706-8413 or vrutter@u.washington.edu
Levenson at (510) 643-7642 or boblev@socrates.berkeley.edu