Study of Successes Leads to Scoring of Couples' Chances: Realism More Important Than Bliss

By Witham, Larry | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 2, 1996 | Go to article overview

Study of Successes Leads to Scoring of Couples' Chances: Realism More Important Than Bliss


Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Second of three parts.

In a culture of divorce, a small group of American pioneers is trying to make the good marriage a science.

Marriages that work are so unpublicized that they are worth investigating for patterns, rules and methods of adaptation, these pioneers say.

"When I started out, my mentors told me, `You're never going to discover anything universal by studying marriage,' " says John Gottman, a professor of psychology at the University of Seattle.

After 18 studies involving 2,000 couples over 20 years, Mr. Gottman is among those who believe successful marriages have certain outlines. "The amazing thing is that there are any laws or principles at all to marriage," he says.

In their Northwest home, D.C. natives Franklin and Curtese Shiflet consider what patterns make their 31-year marriage a success despite economic hardships and their second child's illness.

They began married life on an Army base in Georgia, and since returning for his work in computer management for the D.C. government, they have both held jobs.

"In our early married life, we said we'd never go to bed mad at each other," Mrs. Shiflet says.

"It was hard," her husband says.

As they aged, the motivation behind the principle changed: They don't want to die in their sleep with anger or resentment as their last shared emotion.

"We've lived a good life," says Mr. Shiflet, 52. "I've achieved all my goals, except to get rich."

Finding the secret of these kinds of marriages has been a goal of social and psychological science only since the 1970s, when the focus was on dysfunction and pathology.

The method of study has ranged from cursory social surveys to long personal interviews. Now it has entered the realm of hard science, using such clinical observations as heart rates during spousal arguments.

By such laboratory methods, Mr. Gottman has derived an equation that successful marriages have five good experiences for every negative one.

In the book "Why Marriages Succeed or Fail," he frames three kinds of marital relationships that work and a four-stage cycle of alienation that spells certain doom.

With such data, some researchers speak with missionary zeal about rebuilding the confidence in marriage in the United States, where each year there is one divorce for every two marriages.

"Our culture created the dating system, so we will still have people selecting their partners and falling in love," says David Olson, a family psychologist at the University of Minnesota. "But once that happens, we need to show them what a marriage is made of."

Mr. Olson has spent 20 years refining a 125-question "inventory" method - called Prepare - that couples use to predict their compatibility over the long haul. Today, a tenth of pre-married couples use the method.

He also developed an inventory for married couples - called Enrich - by which they can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their relations.

The key concept emerging seems to be that newlyweds must be realistic about the work and mutual sacrifice a marriage involves and the team project it must be - for a lifetime.

Divorce trends show that a major problem in modern marriage is the inability of couples to balance the "I" and "we" of marriage and endure the first intimate clashes. Thus, half of all divorces come within three years of the wedding.

Marriage counselors say these marriages begin to unravel by the end of the first year.

"To me, the early years are the hardest," Mrs. Shiflet says. "You have to adjust to each other."

The Shiflets' son, Duane, is 27 and will marry in October after a three-year courtship. The advice his father gave him is wise and pithy: "You're not going to win all the arguments."

Judith Wallerstein, a Berkeley, Calif. …

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