Many approaches have been taken by psychologists to study the predicting factors of marriage dissolution. Between 1997 and 2000, Chen and her colleagues at the New York Psychiatric Institute conducted a study using 200 participants where participants with an average age of 29 were asked to write out a detailed narrative of their passage into adulthood and the levels of conflicts they experienced every month with their partners from the age of 17 to 27 (Chen et al.). They were interviewed and from this, the researchers investigated the predictors of conflict in romantic relationships. The models they created showed that between ages 19 and 25 the levels of conflict increased and then from that point went down ever so slightly (Chen et al.). They concluded that many factors were associated with marital conflict and dissolution. A variety of variables play a role in determining one’s approach to resolving conflict in relationships, including having divorced parents, low social status, being an only child, having previously been divorced, actually being married, and having kids, were seen in men and women (Chen et al.). Due to the variability and multi-correlation of the results among couples, the researchers concluded that no concrete factor such as conflict during the transition into adulthood may predict marital success or failure, but that many factors interact to indicate signs of the durability of a marriage (Chen et al.). Isolation of variables would be required to distinguish individual influencing factors that could be used for prediction. Due to the fact that so many factors were involved and the researchers did not proceed to isolate them, the study lacks design value. Moreover, the study is retrospective which causes problems with the reliability of the collected data. Retrospective studies rely on the participants’ memories and have no physical record of the actuality of the past – causing a great deal of uncertainty in responses as participants’ memories are skewed and emotional impacts may have altered future perception. Furthermore, as is a problem with much research of this intention, the study was conducted on a sample with a restrictive age group, 17 to 27, making the results generalizable only for relationships among young people (Chen et al.).
According to Fiske (2004), “in common with other close relationships, romantic relationships involve interdependence, strong feelings, committed intent and overlapping self-concept. But unique to romantic relationships are passion and exclusive commitment” (as cited in Smith & Mackie p. 429). Though couples seem to need some compatible traits in order to stay in a relationship, in most societies marriage brings on a new aspect of coping: living together. Studies have been conducted on temperamental compatibility in marriage in the sense of how each expects to organize his or her lifestyle. This may seem mundane but the extent to which the durability of a marriage depends on the similarities of overall life organization and attitude is inevitable. To study this, different psychologists such as Wolinsky as well as Burgess have investigated thousands of couples and divorcees, bringing their field so much closer to determining how living standards may be used as a predictor of either failure or success (Burgess). One of the studies conducted by Burgess (1938) in order to test these predictive factors involved a sample in which engaged couples were to be assessed on their ability to adjust to the idea of engagement. The researchers used a network sample; they asked college students from psychology classes to distribute surveys to people who they knew were engaged. The survey asked questions such as what they like to do in their free time, if the couple does things together, ‘confide in one another’, how often they show their affection for one another and much more with relation to future plans, financial security and planning. They were also asked whether or not they had ever thought about cancelling the engagement (Burgess). They then gave their contact so that they would be interviewed again 3 - 4 years later to see if they had eventually married or if the engagement had been called off, and also to ‘measure their marital adjustment’. Burgess concluded that two significant predictors could be “temperamental compatibility and consensus upon life organization” (Burgess p.78). Were the partners to be conflicted in these areas their marriage or engagement could be predicted a failure (Burgess). One limitation of this study is that there is a question of whether or not the fact that they were interviewed about their relationship and how they were conducting themselves may have affected their decision-making and their actions during that period of time. A limitation of a networking sample is that it distances the researchers from the participants, making it difficult to spot confounding variables that will thereby be unaccounted for. However, one strength is that through a networking sample the researchers obtained participants and information they may have otherwise never found.
A strong indication of marital success is social compatibility. One theory of how to test this form of compatibility is through conversation and examining the manner in which we speak to one another (Harvard Medical School). A study of 47 heterosexual couples in their thirties was conducted with an aim of finding whether or not it is possible to predict a marriage’s success just by listening to a conversation between both partners (Harvard Medical School). They had each couple talk for about 10 minutes about a subject that they disagreed on. Students of around age 20 were asked to observe a video recording of the couple’s disagreement and evaluate the nature of the conversation as well as each partner every half a minute. The average of the ratings of 5-6 ‘observers’ was compared with what the couple reported to be the quality of their marriage and their ‘reports’ on whether or not they were satisfied, based on an interview where they were asked a set of questions (Harvard Medical School). The researchers attempted to predict whether or not they would still be together five years from then, and then checked back in with them five years later. They realized that the happier couples included a man that showed greater empathy, less hostility and more distress. This shows that a man’s willingness to show his weak side and to be vulnerable to emotion is good for a marriage. However, this is correlational research and although it may be said that couples with sensitive and caring men are more likely to have a successful, durable relationship, this could not be used as a systematic prediction of relationship outcome.
In 2006 Gable published the results of a study where she and her team videotaped adult couples in a laboratory while they took turns discussing positive and negative events. After each conversation, the man and woman of each pair were asked to rate how ‘understood’ or ‘cared for’ they felt by their partner throughout their interaction. At the same time, the researchers rated their activeness and engagement throughout the conversations – as shown by listening, questioning, positive comments etc. They rated as ‘low’ passive comments such as “that’s nice honey” (as cited in Goleman p 219). The couples also individually graded themselves on their commitment and satisfaction in the relationship. The researchers found that the supportive responses to happy statements had higher ratings than the sympathetic responses to the bad news. The results indicated that the way in which partners respond to good news might be a stronger predictor of a healthy relationship than their response to bad occurrences (as cited in Goleman p 220). Gable says that the reason for this is perhaps that dealing with a problem or unsettling situation does not make a couple feel happy, even though it is important for the relationship (Pileggi). The ratio of good instances to bad instances, therefore, can predict the success of a relationship or marriage as a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative events is necessary for a happy relationship (as cited in Goleman p 220). Due to the setup of the experiment, one may argue that there is a possibility of demand characteristics affecting the validity of the results because the couples knew they were being videotaped. The participants may have been inclined to act in a better manner that the way that they usually would in their own home or feel ashamed of how they treat their spouse. On the contrary, however, the strength of this study is that the couple was free to talk about whatever they felt were positive or negative events in their minds, which allowed for free and realistic conversation, making it an ecologically valid activity, despite the artificiality of the setting.
A new study published in Psychological Science finds that people who speak in similar styles are more compatible. Pennebaker & Ireland of the University of Texas at Austin conducted the studies in 2010. The aim was to show that by deciphering speaking and writing styles a researcher may predict the compatibility of a couple and the potential success of a relationship. They focused on words they called ‘function words’ which are the words that we use consistently such as ‘a, the, him, it, be, anything’ – these are not necessarily verbs or nouns (as cited in Association for Psychological Science). The way in which we use these words is unique and to the naked ear cannot be differentiated but technology can score writing and speaking styles and notice significant differences between individuals. The researchers examined whether these styles of speech and writing that couples ‘adopt’ during a conversation would predict future dating and relationships (Association for Psychological Science). The researchers organized short speed-dating sessions with pairs of college students where they recorded their conversations, which through text analysis showed significant differences in language synchrony. The pairs whose language styles matched most closely were four times as likely to want future contact than pairs with out-of-sync speaking styles (Association for Psychological Science). The same was done with online chatting and recently formed couples and they found that close to 80 percent of couples whose writing styles matched were still dating 3 months later (Association for Psychological Science). This study shows means by which relationship durability or success could be predicted. However, the limitations of this study are that it does not show results for relationships lasting longer than 5 months, it does not predict whether or not they will last up until marriage or even if their plausible marriage will be successful.
Gottman (2000) conducted a study in which he compared the behaviour and interaction of married couples that were happy with those that were troubled. He found that most of the time, those who showed positive exchanges in interaction were those who were happiest. They would listen, smile, nod, acknowledge each other when the other was speaking and most importantly they made eye contact. Their tone of voice was also soft and caring (Hatfield & Rapson 113). Distressed couples often demonstrated escalating patterns of aggression and showed almost no sympathy for the other person. The problem was, as soon as one partner would begin to act in this way, a spark would ignite and render a never-ending argument (Hatfield & Rapson113). Although this certainly reflected the present-case emotional state of the couple, judging the way in which the couples spoke to each other was not a predictor of whether or not their marriage or relationship would last. Couples who were happy may have been in the early stages of their relationships and further along the road, certain events cause a partner to change perspective or perhaps lose temper. In the cases where couples are not used to fighting, an elevated temper of one may provoke the same in the other (as cited in Goleman p 200). The participants could have been biased due to expectancy effect, which may have simply given what the researchers were expecting from happy couples, not necessarily indicating they were indeed happy.
Gottman also developed a mathematical model to predict which marriages will last. The equation was said to be 94% accurate at predicting the marriage that will result in divorce (as cited in Goleman 219). It is a system of scoring that adds and subtracts points for different verbal and facial expressions. There are 20 different categories and a successful marriage is defined as one that lasts at least four years (as cited in Goleman p 230). Gottman conducted a longitudinal study over the span of 10 years, which included 700 couples using this mathematical equation and predicted the couples with the most plausible opportunity for a long-lasting marriage. Gottman states that while math is not the only solution to fixing a problematic marriage, his tactics show that with the information given by the final score from the equation, the couple is able to adjust and work on their marriage as well as their communication (Burgess). There are several limitations to using a mathematical equation to predict the durability of an emotional tie between two people. First of all, you cannot calculate unpredictable emotions, events; and secondly, people get married for a variety of reasons, which means that the same criteria will not necessarily fit everyone’s situation. However, by the analysis of common and repeated micro-expressive properties in an individual, this mathematical equation may be on track for most couples. The Dawes formula is ‘the frequency of love-making minus the frequency of quarrels’ (Fisher 179). However, based on Gottman’s findings on micro-expressions and the reliability of these at predicting marriage failure – Dawes’ predictions may correlate with Gottman’s, suggesting that with matching micro-expressive characteristics, the frequency of love-making would be by default higher than the frequency of quarrels – thus this equation could be used to predict the compatibility of a couple’s micro-expressions and furthermore their marital compatibility.