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., clinical psychologist known worldwide for her divorce research, decided to find out why some marriages last. She spent five years tracking 50 couples with marriages that had lasted 10 to 40 years.

"Marriage is something you build over a lifetime," she says. "It has to keep changing. Couples must be able to change as marriage goes along or it will die."

She found that married life is confronted with nine tasks, or potential crises. To pass through them all is to succeed at marriage. The first two tasks, confirmed by the Shiflets, are for the husband and wife to become independent of their families and join two egos into a single "we."

"The fault line of marriage is how much togetherness and how much autonomy that couple maintains," Mrs. Wallerstein says.

The prevailing marriage of the 1980s and 1990s, she says, is not a "traditional" or "romantic" marriage, but a "companionate" union in which the man and woman meet as equal partners.

For all the freedom that gives each of them, "the danger is that they can become more like brother and sister," Mrs. Wallerstein says. "To maintain the marriage, they have to keep building in some major satisfactions, find ways for more intimacy."

Next among the nine tasks, the couple must open their intimacy to a child, according to her book "The Good Marriage."

The marriage must be ready to endure the adversity of sickness or financial distress. And the relationship must be a haven for expressions of unavoidable conflict and anger.

An accommodating sex life, a life imbued with humor, emotional nurturing over the years and recollection of early love are the final tasks of a lasting marriage.

Philip and Anne Benedicto, Virginia natives living in Centreville, see their marriage as a 13-year success that has given them two children, ages 7 and 5, and insights into human relationships.

Mr. Benedicto, 35, a computer analyst, says each spouse needs to change, and he has found it part of the adventure. Still, he says, husband and wife never agree on everything.

"In our case, we have the commitment to the institution of marriage so we can let those disagreements go by the wayside," Mr. Benedicto says.

His wife has been surprised at the rapid changes a marriage goes through. "Until we had children, everything that posed a problem or argument came from outside forces," such as in-laws or work, Mrs. Benedicto says. Now it centers on how to raise the children.

"I used to think Philip and I were a lot alike," she says. "But over the years I think we're very different at a deeper level." Now she relishes the differences as a resource and a way to learn.

After much testing of his premarital inventory, Mr. Olson says it could have predicted the outcome of a marriage such as the Benedictos' with 80 percent to 85 percent accuracy.

"In the last five years the quality and quantity of this kind of research has improved," he says.

More than 30,000 counselors and clergy use inventories. Mr. Olson's organization, Prepare/Enrich in Minneapolis, is considered the most reliable in computing the inventory results and producing an 11-page report on the couple's strengths and weaknesses in 14 areas.

"The system does more than learn things a couple has in common," Mr. Olson says. "It discovers how good each of them feels about aspects of their marriage."

On average, 10 percent of the engaged couples who take the inventory end their relationship because all the indicators are wrong. A key area in this judgment is "idealistic distortion" - being too rosy-eyed to see what's ahead.

The 50 happy couples of Mrs. Wallerstein's study could have set these marital novices straight. "They made it clear they were not happy all the time," Mrs. Wallerstein wrote. "Many admitted that at times they wanted out. Some confessed that on occasion they felt they had made a mistake."

Accordingly, Mr. Olson says, those couples who do well always score high in the area of "realistic expectations."

In the Prepare model, engaged couples look at their upbringing. Married couples using Enrich analyze the kind of relationship they have. This realm of marital relationship is where Mr. Olson, like other researchers, comes up with types of marriages.

He says seven kinds of marriages show up based on Enrich scores in areas ranging from communication and personality to family and friends and leisure activities.

A "vitalized" couple score high in all areas. A "harmonized" or "balanced" couple have a few high scores and moderate success in most categories.

Other marriage types are "traditional," "conflicted," "financially oriented" and "devitalized." The bad news, according to a study of 15,000 couples who took Enrich, is that the largest groups are devitalized (36 percent to 40 percent) and conflicted (14 percent to 25 percent).

In the Wallerstein model, there are four kinds of marriages that work. Her book tells the story of couples in each style of working relationship: romantic, rescue, companionate and traditional.

A hopeful finding in each of these categories, Mrs. Wallerstein says, is that marriage helps adults grow and thereby improve. "It was a terribly important discovery that early childhood is crucial, but we have underestimated the great amount of growth in adulthood," she says.

In the rescue marriage, for example, a couple are attracted by a mutual desire to heal wounds from abused or neglected childhoods.

"We change in marriage, and it can create and uphold large amounts of self-esteem," she says, criticizing claims that deprived childhoods destine dysfunctional adulthoods. "We've all been insulted. We've all been rejected."

Only in marriage, she says, will adults find an exclusive relationship that heals a neglected past. "It conveys the feeling that `I'm No. 1.' "

Mr. Gottman pioneered the hard-science approach to marital life by viewing couples for about 20 hours in a room. They were videotaped for facial expressions and body language and wired to track physical reactions to arguments or emotions.

His findings clash with the conventional wisdom, he says, that good sex, common interests and happy conversations always make for marital success.

To the contrary, his studies show, "those who did not fight earlier were less likely to have maintained stable marriages than those who were confrontational."

What turns this marital conflict into durability, Mr. Gottman says, are wisdom and skills that include defusing arguments, using the right body language, making amends, learning and talking in a constructive direction.

Ordinary marital conflict, however, can rapidly spiral downhill, Mr. Gottman says.

He describes four negative stages. Beginning with criticism, the couple move to contempt and defensiveness and bottom out with stonewalling - an inability to talk.

Three kinds of marriages found by Mr. Gottman absorb the conflicts effectively. First is the "validating" marriage - akin to the Wallerstein category of "companionate." Mr. Gottman calls this marriage type "more dynamic" for the spouses' interest in each other's opinions even if they finally disagree.

The "conflict-avoidance" marriage is like a traditional marriage, where roles and common beliefs are clear enough to avoid clashes or get over disagreements easily.

The "volatile" marriage, Mr. Gottman says, is the boisterous couple who always seem at odds but undergird everything with love, respect and affection.

"I think we are going to have some good maps on successful marriage in the next 10 or 15 years," Mr. Gottman says. "Right now we feel like we're early 15th-century Portuguese map makers."

Tomorrow: The spiritual side of marriage



Marriages that can work, from Judith Wallerstein's "The Good Marriage":

* Romantic - Based on attraction and idealism.

* Rescue - Meets the needs of one or both of the spouses from childhood neglect.

* Companionate - The husband and wife are career holders and partners.

* Traditional - The husband works, and the wife builds the home.

Marital embrace of conflict, from John Gottman's "Why Marriages Succeed or Fail":

* Validating - The couple find compromise and a calm affirmation of differences.

* Conflict-avoiding - They agree to disagree with no confrontation.

* Volatile - Commitment and affection overcome passionate disputes.

David Olson's "Enriching and Nurturing Relationships Issues, Communication and Happiness" rates marriages on personality, communication, conflict resolution, finance, leisure, sex, children, family and friends, and religion.

Hopeful marriages:

* Vitalized - High degree of satisfaction in nine areas of marriage.

* Harmonious - High satisfaction in all but children, family and friends, and religion.

* Balanced - Average satisfaction in all areas.

* Traditional - Higher satisfaction in family, friends, religion and leisure.

Problem marriages: * Conflicted - Few communication skills but satisfaction in leisure, parenting and religion.

* Financially focused - Strengths only in financial and leisure areas.

* Devitalized - Few strengths, with a high chance for divroce.

Nine tasks for good marriages, from Judith Wallerstein's "The Good Marriage":

1. Separate emotionally from family and build extended family ties.

2. Create a sense of "we."

3. Include children in the circle of intimacy.

4. Adapt to life's adversities, from illness to accidents.

5. Make marriage a haven for anger and conflict.

6. A mutually satisfying sex life.

7. Keep up the laughter, humor, play and flirtation.

8. Provide emotional nurturing and encouragement.

9. Renew images and fantasies of early marriage.

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


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