Is Your Marriage Bliss, or a Miss?

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Great Date, Great Mate?

WebMD Feature

March 19, 2001 -- Drinks. Appetizers. Dinner.

It's nearly time for dessert, and the evening has flown by. You can't remember a second date that's gone so smoothly. You like the same wines, the same entrées, the same restaurants. OK, you're sure you could dine out together every night with this person without so much as a minor culinary squabble. But is this relationship going to last, or is it destined for the scrap heap?

Used to be, you'd have to ride out your curiosity about whether this guy or gal is The One. You'd bide your time, look for little clues (Does he talk about you favorably with the old married friends who fixed you up? Does she invite you along to family parties, or say you'd just be bored?).

That's so 90s. These days, predicting the success of relationships has become less of a gut instinct related to whether you both drool over shrimp scampi, or the same web sites. If you want to know whether you're headed into a long, happy union, or destined to part, let go of those romantic, old-fashioned notions and take a long, hard look at the science of your relationship.

More science, less crystal ball

While you've been fussing over what to wear, whether to comb over the bald spot, and whether those dating rulebooks deserve any attention, a new breed of relationship experts has been watching. Maybe they aren't watching you and your string of never-to-be-seen-again dates, but they've been eyeing plenty of other newly coupled couples, or those hoping to become couples, trying to predict who is well matched and who's not.

And now, they've got some answers. Indeed, so sure are some of these researchers about the science of predicting relationship success, they teach it to other therapists for use in premarital or couples counseling sessions. But anyone wondering if Mr. or Ms. Great Date will become Mr. or Ms. Great Mate can make use of the information they have uncovered, and draw some conclusions on their own.

The success factors

About 25 or 30 factors should be taken into account when predicting relationship success, says Jeffry Larson, PhD, professor and director of the marriage and family therapy graduate programs at Brigham Young University, who recently taught colleagues about the topic in a program sponsored by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Some are obvious factors such as personality differences, says Larson, author of Should We Stay Together?

Among the pairings he feels have little chance of long-term success: Those in which there are significant religious differences, and those in which one person is the party type and the other isn't. Despite the old wisdom that opposites attract, he advises against such relationships. "It makes marriage interesting," he says, "but difficult."

Another red flag: A couple who have a conflict every time they go out, but think marriage will smooth things over. Engaged couples, he finds, chalk it up to pre-wedding pressure or anxiety. But he tells them that marriage is more stressful than dating or living together.

The three-minute litmus test

Aside from personality factors and argument frequency, pay attention to your arguing style, suggest Larson and other therapists. It is telling -- and predictive. There's nothing wrong with arguing, but hostility during arguments is a very bad sign, Larson says.

Fighting style is very much an indicator of whether a relationship will last, agrees Sybil Carrere, PhD, a research psychologist and assistant professor of family and child nursing at the University of Washington School of Nursing, Seattle, who has conducted many studies with John Gottman, PhD, known as the University of Washington's marriage research guru.

After observing couples argue, Carrere and her co-researchers found, they could predict divorce among newlyweds based on the first three minutes of an argument. Couples who ultimately divorced were more likely to start the dialogue with an attack on their partner's character, says Carrere. Something like: You never tell me what is going on. You always hold in everything.

"When someone comes at you that way, it is hard to come back in a positive fashion," Carrere says. And so the fight escalates. "It reminds me of 8-year-olds fighting," she says.

That first meeting

Another big clue: When your beloved tells the story of your meeting, how much detail does he or she include? This, says Carrere, reflects the importance your partner places on the relationship. Happy partners remember minute details of their meeting. For example, she recalls a woman who remembered that her mate, at their first meeting, kissed her hand. And it's not just the happily coupled women who remember such romantic details. So do the happy men.

When stories of first meetings are barren of details, Carrere takes it as a bad sign. Some couples are unable to tell what attracted them to each other initially, another predictor of a flailing partnership.

When the University of Washington team followed 95 newlywed couples from the Seattle area for seven to nine years and paid heed to what they said about their spouses and how they referred to them, they could predict with 87% accuracy which couples would still be married four to six years later. That report was published in the spring 2000 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.

A professional's opinion

Based on all the new science about predicting relationship success, growing numbers of therapists, including Larson, conduct premarital counseling and couples counseling. Sometimes, couples who enter this counseling decide they are not meant for each other. Short-term, it's sad, Larson says, but may save a lifetime of grief. He recalls a young couple, ages 23 and 24, who were engaged and consulted him two weeks before the wedding. The man confessed to Larson, "I don't feel much spark."

During the session, the couple said they focused on the fun parts of the relationship but avoided talking about serious issues. There was no real physical attraction on the man's part. When Larson gently pointed out the red flags, and all the factors that predicted failure, the couple postponed and finally canceled the wedding.

Recently, Larson received a wedding announcement from the young man, who had found a more compatible partner. He is hoping to hear from the man's ex-fiancée soon.

Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based health journalist and regular contributor to WebMD. Her work also appears in the Los Angeles Times, Shape, Modern Maturity, and other publications.


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