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Will Your Relationship Last? Let's Fight About It and See!

Research shows that fighting predicts relationship success.

If you asked 1,000 couples headed to the alter if they thought they were going to divorce, my guess is that the near unanimous answer would be “No.” However, we know that somewhere between 40-50% of those unions will not last.

What if you and your partner could take a simple survey and know ahead of time if you were going to last? Would you? Before you think “heck yes!” think about what this would entail. In my Human Sexuality class, my students say, despite my telling them that this survey will predict with great accuracy whether a couple will stay together or break up, that they would never let a stupid survey tell them if they’re with the right partner. This is because we, as Americans, believe strongly in our free will and in our own self-determination. We believe that even if the results say we will break up, we will be the exception because “our love is so strong we will overcome whatever deficits the data finds in us.” Don’t believe me? Just ask any 18 or 19 year old who is getting married. No matter how many times you tell them the statistics on teenage marriage, they will plow ahead determined to be the exception.

So back to that magic survey. First, let’s see if you can predict what, in fact, does predict divorce. Answer these quick 10 questions .

How’d you do? If you’re like most people, you only got 3 or 4 of them right. Not very good given the importance of knowing what negatively affects marriage. Most of us have come to believe that fighting over money is a bad thing in marriage and that lots of sex is a good thing. But neither of these are marriage breakers or makers.

It turns out that if you want to predict whether a marriage will last, all you need to do is watch a couple fight. In hindsight, we’d say that of course the good times don’t tell us anything about a couple’s potential longevity. If there were nothing but good times, pretty much all marriages would last. Conflict is unavoidable. If nothing else, someone is going to leave the toilet seat up one too many times. It is the inevitable bad times, and more specifically, the way you and your partner deal with conflict, that will make or break a marriage. And the interesting thing is that your individual fighting style doesn’t matter; one is just as good, or bad, as another. What matters is whether or not your partner has the same style as you.

How important are these couple fighting styles to predicting marital success or strife? Well, John Gottman, the Seattle researcher who has been studying marriage for over 30 years, says that based on viewing a couple fighting, he can predict with 90% accuracy whether that couple will go on to divorce. Gottman began his studying of relationships by trying to find a mathematical formula that could predict success or failure. And, indeed, he was able to find one (more on the magic 5:1 ratio later). But in the years following, he more finely tuned his research by bringing couples in to his Love Lab and making them fight.

According to Gottman, there are 3 basic fighting or, as he coined it, relational styles. (Before reading further, if you are interested in finding out which one you are, you can take the quiz here . You will need a paper and pen)

The three basic styles are Conflict-Avoidant, Volatile, and Validating. The key here is that a couple must settle into a mutual marital style even if it is a blend of the three basic ones.

Avoidant Marriages

A more accurate name is probably Conflict Minimizers because these couples make light of their differences rather than resolving them. These couples agree to disagree, rarely confronting their differences head-on. There is a different sense of “we-ness” to these couples. It is as if they know their bond is so strong they can overlook their disagreements. They display little passion but also have fewer “wild fires” in the relationship. There is a low level of companionship and sharing in the marriage. They value separateness and maintain autonomy in their use of space (she rules the kitchen while he spends time in his man-cave). These couples tend to lead calm, pleasant lives.

Volatile Marriages

In contrast to the Conflict-Avoidant couples, in volatile marriages conflicts erupt often resulting in passionate disputes. However, not only do these couples express more anger, they also laugh and are more affectionate than the average couple. They express more negative AND positive emotions. They are independent sorts who believe that marriage should emphasize and strengthen individuality. At home they tend to have personal space and respect each other’s privacy. They both consider themselves analytical. He sees himself as nurturing; she is expressive. They are open about their feelings – good and bad. They disclose their innermost thoughts and emotions which fuels both their battles and their romance (sometimes over the same disclosure!). They believe that honesty in all matters is very important in a marriage and they censor very few of their thoughts.These marriages tend to be passionate and exciting, as if, as Gottman wrote, “the marital punch has been spiked with danger.”

Validating Marriages

These couples compromise often and calmly work out their problems to mutual satisfaction as they arise. In the midst of a disagreement they are still able to let their partner know that they consider his or her opinions and emotions valid, even if they don’t disagree with them. There is a fair amount of stereotypical sex roles in these marriages with wives staying at home and the husbands doing the finances. These wives are expressive while the husbands are masculine. They value “we-ness” of their marriage over individual goals and values. These couples often complete each other’s sentences and highly value communication, verbal openness, and being “in love.” They display affection (rather than passion), share their time, activities, and interests with each other. They rarely have personal space.

So which style is better? Well, if you’ve been listening, you’ll know the answer is none or all. Again, each style is equally predictive of marital success IF your partner is also the same style. Can you imagine a conflict-avoider being married to a validating person? One also wanting to sweep issues under the rug and the other always wanting to talk about every issue? Or a validator with a volatile type? One looking to calmly compromise and the other wanting to passionately fight it out?

So, back to my original question, would you, now knowing that Gottman can accurately predict marital success, distribute this questionnaire to every potential partner? Why invest months or years into a relationship that probability tells you will fail? Let me put it this way, if I could predict winning lottery numbers 90% of the time, you wouldn’t think twice about buying my next week’s prediction, right? It’s because we have been conditioned to think that love is some kind of magic that happens between two people. Thinking that it can all be neatly subsumed by some researcher’s data violates the laws of Fairy Tales. However, I’ll ask you, do you want to win the lottery or not?

Next month: What if you and your spouse’s relational styles DON’T match? Are you doomed or might there still be some magic left in the formula?