Each partner in a marriage brings along personal baggage, and it doesn't require bitter conflict to destroy the relationship. Equally important, according to new research out of the University of Michigan, is how each partner deals with that conflict.
Researchers at the university interviewed 373 couples four times over a 16-year period, and found that many of those marriages were probably doomed from the beginning because the partners couldn't get their act together. One wanted to resolve the conflict. The other wanted to ignore it.
That may not be surprising, but the details are. The study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, reached several conclusions, including these:
The husband, not the wife, is more likely to use constructive strategies, trying to confront a problem and resolve it by working through the disagreement.
The wife is more likely to resort to destructive strategies, yelling or withdrawing, allowing the dispute to gnaw at the relationship.
Over time, the wife is likely to change her behavior, becoming more constructive in her approach to conflicts, while the husband is more likely to remain unchanged. Since both are willing to work together to resolve the dispute, the marriage has a better chance of succeeding, according to the study.
"The most important finding is the pattern of behaviors predicts the longevity of the marriage," Kira Birditt, first author of the study, said in a telephone interview. "You can't just have one person using constructive strategies, trying to find solutions and calmly discussing the problem. You have to have both spouses using that strategy."
Literally thousands of studies have tried to explain why so many marriages fail, and most have dealt with life-changing events like illness, money worries, infidelity, drug abuse and so on. But most are short-term projects because it's costly and difficult to follow marriages over the long term.
How to Make a Marriage Last
So, more than two decades ago, the University of Michigan's Terri Orbuch established the Early Years of Marriage Project, which has now extended well beyond the early years. In 1986 researchers began interviewing couples who applied for marriage licenses in Wayne County, Michigan. They ended up with 373 couples, and both partners were interviewed that year, as well as the third, seventh and sixteenth years of the marriage. They will be interviewed again next year as part of the ongoing research.
By the 16th year, 2002, 46 percent of the couples had divorced.
Like so many studies, the research was based on self-reported attitudes and behaviors, so the findings are only as valid as the candor of the participants. And in the very first interviews, there is some reason to doubt the openness of the couples, at least on some issues. Some 29 percent of the husbands and 21 percent of the wives claimed they had no conflicts at all during their first year of marriage.
That is an astonishing figure, considering the adjustments that each partner must make during the early months of a new marriage, and Birditt believes some spouses may have been less than candid on that question because they were interviewed separately.
"The method changed in the third, seventh and 16th year," she said, and the spouses were interviewed together. "When they are together, it's harder to lie. I can see the wife saying oh no, we did have a conflict, honey."
Perhaps the most surprising finding in the entire study is this:
"Constructive behaviors were associated with divorce, but not in the expected direction," the study says. "Greater constructive behaviors among wives predicted greater divorce rates."
"We were totally surprised by that," Birditt said. "I'm not sure what's going on there. It might be that wives are more likely to use destructive strategies regularly, so when they use a constructive strategy it might be like the last straw. Maybe they're done with the yelling and screaming, but now they really have a problem."
If was particularly potent if the wife was constructive and the husband was withdrawing, according to the study. The researchers theorize that in that situation the wife may be struggling to make the marriage work, and she views her husband's withdrawal as a sign that the marriage is no longer meaningful to him.
Of course, it's unlikely that very many spouses employ the same strategies consistently. Sometimes they may be constructive, seriously attempting to calmly discuss an issue and work out a mutually acceptable solution. And sometimes a spouse may blow his or her top, regardless of intentions. That's why the researchers looked for patterns of behavior, and they found that it takes both spouses, working together, to make a lasting marriage.
How to Make a Marriage Last
Birditt, by the way, is in her third year of marriage, and she described herself as "happy." So how does she resolve conflicts in her own marriage?
"I think it depends on the situation," she said. "I guess I use all of them. It just depends on how mad I am."
The Michigan research is compatible with other work showing that the survival of a marriage is due to many factors, some of which we may not even be aware of. Psychologist John Gottman of the University of Washington has been in the forefront of studying what he calls the "masters and disasters of marriage," and he has even come up with a mathematical formula for determining which marriages will fail.
Gottman analyzed hundreds of video-taped interviews of couples he has studied during his research and found a "magic ratio" of 5 to 1 -- that's five positive interactions for every negative interaction -- between the spouses during the interviews. Even when discussing conflicts, he said, some couples could laugh and tease and show affection. Overall, he insists, his formula can predict which marriages will last with a 94 percent accuracy.
The ratio may be open to question, but there's no doubt that at least part of the formula is accurate: Successful marriage is "magic."