Marriage

Does Compatibility Predict Marriage Success?

Research suggests how to look ahead to see if your marriage will hit trouble.

Posted Nov 10, 2011

If you want to stay married, cooperate with zero anger or arguing.
To stay married, learn skills for cooperative win-win interacting.

Does initial compatibility predict a long-lasting and gratifying marriage?  With the statistics more or less 50-50 on whether a given couple will succeed in marriage or end up in divorce, it's understandable that many folks wonder how to tell which side they will end up on.  With a second marriage, the odds of success are actually lower. What if anything does compatibility have to do with reasons for divorce?

There's good news for couples, and even more so for second time newlyweds.  The news is that the outcome of a marriage that begins with a loving and compatible couple is predictable. And  most importantly, marriage success depends on factors that couples can do something about.  

Most couples who take wedding vows start out feeling quite happy together.  A recent study by Justin Lavner and Thomas Bradbury, published October 31 in the Journal of Family Psychology looked to see if there were risk factors early in marriage that could identify which couples would continue to build a loving partnership, and which would gradually split apart over anger, affairs, or other form of relationship deterioration.

Lavner and Bradbury followed 136 couples for over ten years.  For the first four years of marriage, all the couples who were included in the study reported high levels of relationship satisfaction.  

After ten years of marriage, some of the couples had divorced.  Lavner and Bradbury then looked back at the data they had collected when the couples had first married to see if the divorced couples had been different from early on.  

Turns out that the happy and divorced couples scored similarly in their newlywed ratings of how satisfied they were with their relationship.  They were similar in how loving they had been around the time of the wedding and even for the first several years. 

What differed was that the couples who later divorced showed more tendency, even in their first year of marriage, to express negative emotions like anger and to use negative communications like blame and criticism.  That is, their skills for sustaining cooperation were shakey.  They too easily slipped into arguing, speaking harshly, listening dismissively or giving up when differences arose.

Every couple bumps into issues where she'd prefer they do one thing and he'd prefer another. Every couple has moments of disagreement, disappointment, and distress.  The difference lies in what couples say and do at these times.  Do they have the skills to be able to stay cooperative so they can talk over the problem in a mutually respectful way?  Or do they become angry and speak aggressively to each other, or equally problematic, avoid discussing problems, drift apart, and eventually have affairs?  

The good news is that cooperation is a skill set.  Skills sets can be learned.  Couples who learn the skills for sustaining cooperative interactions have higher odds of staying happily married, just like drivers who learn the rules for safe driving have fewer car accidents.  

Click here for a quick and free test of where your skills look strong enough and where, looking ahead, you'd be likely to run into trouble.

The moral of the story?  Polish up your skills for cooperative partnership if you want to stay in love. 

Next time you have an anniversary coming up, instead of buying a glass vase, give yourself and your spouse a marriage skills course.  A glass vase may shatter; a skills upgrade will help assure that that your marital happiness lasts forever.

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Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution for therapists and The Power of Two for couples.  A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is an fun interactive website that teaches the skills for marriage success,  PowerOfTwoMarriage.com