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'We're Done' Can be Predicted Before 'I Do'

Kathleen Doheny, HealthDay Reporter, August 19, 2004

It seems the seeds of divorce are sown long before a couple recites their wedding vows.

New research shows certain relationship skills—or the lack of them—can predict whether two people are headed for marital bliss or a painful breakup.

The skills that predicted success will come as no surprise to marriage therapists or happily married couples.

“The ones who stayed happily married were likely to handle conflict constructively,” said study author Mari L. Clements, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Her report appears in the August issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

“Even in the midst of a difficult issue in their relationship, they were likely to treat each other with respect,” Clements said. “They were likely to listen to each other.”

Those headed for divorce were more likely to make negative comments about the relationship or the partner, she found. And this pattern was evident before the marriage ever took place.

Clements and her colleagues studied 100 couples over 13 years to predict and confirm the couples’ marital satisfaction or distress. The couples had volunteered to participate in the Denver Family Development Project beginning in 1980 and were each planning their first marriage.

Before their wedding, they were tested using a variety of measures, such as a marital adjustment test which evaluates such factors as happiness, disagreement and confidence, a tool that allows a partner to rate the effect of their spouse’s communication, and a relationship problem inventory.

“Couples who ended up divorced viewed each others’ communication more negatively,” Clements said.

“We assessed them before they got married, when they still had all the rose-colored glasses in place,” she said. “We followed them for 13 years.”

As the study continued, 58 couples were considered happily married (although some had fallen into distress and then recovered), 22 were married but not happy and 20 had divorced.

The findings are actually good news, Clement said, because the lack of skills leading up to unhappiness and divorce can be dealt with in counseling. “The way you handle conflict, the way you communicate with your partner, we can [help people] change those,” she said.

And it’s not that the happily married couples are perfect, Clements said. “It wasn’t that the couples who are happy never undermined or insulted their partners,” she said. “They just did it less.”

But even a few hurtful remarks can turn a small problem into a big one over the years, she said. “Say I only say one nasty thing to my partner once a day. But over 13 years, to hear it every day will have a cumulative effect.”

Marriage expert Thomas Bradbury calls the findings “noteworthy” because they show how a handful of variables assessed even before marriage can reveal important information about how a relationship will evolve.

From the study, “we see the presence of harsh and critical comments, even very brief and well-intentioned ones, can accumulate to erode spouses’ feelings of closeness and intimacy,” said Bradbury, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of several books on marriage and divorce.

“I agree with Dr. Clements and her colleagues that more work is needed on this topic, but already we can see that our relationships, like most things, require maintenance and attention. John F. Kennedy said it best: The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining. Attending to our relationships now, today, is essential if we want them to remain strong into the future.”