If this were a perfect world, engaged couples would be able to take some kind of a test that would tell them whether their planned marriage would succeed.
If they flunked, they would go back to the dating game. If they succeeded, they would be guaranteed a life of blissful matrimony.
Well, guess what. It's not a perfect world. But researchers at the Ohio State University Medical Center have come up with what seems to be a very reliable predictor of divorce. It's not the kind of thing that's likely to be turned into a prenuptial divorce meter anytime soon, but it speaks volumes about why some marriages fail and others succeed.
It turns out that it's all in the hormones.
Bad Marriage = Bad Health
Back in 1988, the researchers picked 90 newly wedded couples to take part in a research project. The goal was to determine how much of a role interpersonal relationships have on such things as stress, and whether that has an impact on health.
"We wanted to look at a really important close personal relationship, marriage," says Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychiatry at OSU and one of the leaders of the project.
The participants were selected from more than 2,200 couples who had volunteered for the study. People with obvious problems that could disrupt a marriage, such as chronic depression or alcohol dependency, were eliminated. Too many variables would cloud the results of the study, so only couples who seemed to have everything going for them were allowed into the project.
The 90 couples selected for the research were downright "blissful," according to William Malarkey, professor of internal medicine and immunology, another leader of the research group.
Each of the couples spent 24 hours in the university's Clinical Research Center. An intravenous tube was inserted into each participant so that blood could be drawn at regular intervals without interruption.
As video cameras rolled, the couples were interviewed and asked to discuss — or even resolve — some of the problems in their marriage. Even "blissful" couples have some problems.
The researchers achieved their first goal early on, and over the years they have reported in various professional journals that hostility between the partners reduced the effectiveness of their immunological systems. Among the couples who seemed the most hostile during the discussion of marital troubles, three hormones — epinephrine (better known as adrenalin), norepinephrine and ACTH — rose considerably in the blood samples.
That's significant because those hormones are known as immune inhibitors, meaning they "down regulate" the immune system, Kiecolt-Glaser says. That, in turn, could leave the person more vulnerable to disease.
Further study of the blood samples has convinced the researchers that a bad marriage could lead to bad health, but more recently they have focused on whether those early blood samples could tell them anything about the chances of the marriages succeeding.
Hormones Predicted the Future
All 90 couples were tracked down 10 years after the project had begun. Only 19 percent were divorced, well below the national average, so there apparently really was bliss in most of the marriages.
But when the researchers took a close look at the failed marriages, they were in for a surprise.