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Tracking the signs of an ailing marriage.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Dissapointment or disillusionment with marriageproved "the most powerful single predictor of divorce" in a study reported in the Journal of Family Psychology recently.

Researchers Kim Buehlman, John Gottman and Lynn Katz, all affiliated with the University of Washington, correctly predicted all the divorces that occurred within three years among 56 couples they interviewed in 1986. Three couples projected to divorce were still married in 1989, but Katz told NCR follow-up studies will assess whether they divorce later.

The research began with oral history interviews, similar to those sociologist Studs Terkel used as the basis for Working, Hard Times and other books.

The couples who participated in 1986 were asked about the history of their relationship, good and bad times in their marriage, their philosophy of what makes marriage work and how the marriage has changed. They were not asked how long they had been married, Katz said. Then the couples visited a laboratory where their interaction style during a high-conflict task were recorded.

Three years later, the couples completed questionnaires about their marital satisfaction. Four of the 56 couples did not participate in 1989.

The husband's disappointment with the marriage in 1986 proved the most significant factor in predicting divorce, the researchers found. It "was significantly correlated with both his own and his wife's marital unhappiness, with his own belligerence and his wife's contempt and anger, and with his wife's faster heart rate during the marital interaction," the journal article reported.

Another significant factor was lack of "we-ness" or separateness. "We-ness" assessed how much a spouse identified as part of a couple rather than emphasizing his or her independence. Couples who score low in "we-ness," the article reported, "are probably living parallel lives, in the same home but never really joining together anymore."

All participants were central Illinois couples recruited through newspaper advertising when Katz and Gottman were working in Illinois. The couples involved had to have a child age 4 or 5, but that could be the first, last or any other child.

Effects of marital interaction and distress on children will be extrapolated from the same data and evaluated separately from the report about divorce, Katz said.

Other factors the researchers found significant in predicting divorce were couples' low scores in fondness or the ability to show affection toward each other, husbands' high scores in negativity toward their wives and husbands' lack of expansiveness during the oral history interview. Expansiveness measures the person's expressiveness, as opposed to withdrawal.

Another factor indicating the potential for divorce was a high score in "chaos" and a low score in "glorifying the struggle."

Chaos refers to a couple's feeling "out of control of external events," the article said. They "usually do not know how to problem-solve or get back on their feet. Instead, they just accept that life is hard, and they continue to struggle to survive instead of growing closer or learning new ways to deal with life's problems."

In contrast, the article continued, "couples who glorify the struggle have a better chance at staying together than couples who do not. These couples may be in the same turmoil as the couples who score high in chaos, but the difference is their perception of the hardships. Quotes like |Marriage is the hardest job in the world, but it is well worth it' demonstrate the couples' feelings of hopefulness and togetherness."

The researchers reported that, with the oral history interview, they have developed a mechanism, useful for clinical work, that "could tap processes" that predict marital dissolution.

Katz told NCR the interview would not be useful in counseling engaged couples, unless they have been living together for a long time, because it deals with the history of the relationship.

But marriage counselors might find it helpful for exploring potential problem areas, she said, adding that copies of the interview are available through Gottman at the University of Washington.

"Some of these things therapists are very aware of already, for exammple, how much negativity there is between" a couple "or how much affection," Katz said. But "whether they're living a very chaotic life, or whether they speak about each other in a very expansive type of way, are areas I think are new to the field."

Katz warned, however, that no one can predict, based on the interview, whether an isolated couple will divorce. And "once you start getting away from the actual interview, it becomes more and more diffuse and difficult," she said. "People start interpreting what they mean by negativity and affection and expansiveness in their own ways," making it difficult to know "whether everybody across the nation who calls something expansiveness means the same thing," Katz said. "And the fine, specific definitions become general impressions."

Nevertheless, a counselor could use the interview to assess, for instance, that a husband and wife seem to be "leading parallel lives" with little shared identity. "And that suggests that might be an area for them to work on as a couple," Katz said.
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Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 11, 1992
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