The Independent

Sunday, October 3, 1999

Quiz 'can predict divorce in 3 minutes'

By Cherry Norton
The Independent

IT COULD all be over in three minutes. Starry-eyed newly-weds can now take a test which will show whether or not they are destined for a long and happy marriage - or disaster.

The three-minute divorce prediction test, developed by Professor John Gottman, one of the world's leading experts on marriage and relationships, will be published tomorrow.

His study - based on 124 couples who had been married for less than six months and did not have children - showed that, by assessing just a three-minute conversation between spouses, experts could accurately predict whether they would be divorced within six years.

In Britain, the latest government figures show that 35 per cent of all divorces, representing 55,000 couples, occur within the first six years of marriage.

Professor Gottman has been observing couples in his Family Research Laboratory at the University of Washington for more than 20 years. In his latest work, to be published in the next issue of the journal Family Process, the newly-weds were given an annual assessment for six years. Researchers used hidden cameras to study the couples discussing an area of disagreement, monitoring facial expressions, voice tone and speech content.

The tapes were then analysed using a special relationship code of five positive qualities and 10 negatives. The good signs were: interest, validation, affection, humour and joy; the bad were disgust, contempt, belligerence, domineering, anger, fear, tension, defensiveness, whining sadness and stonewalling.

The researchers found that the first statement in the discussion, which four times out of five came from the woman, was the key in predicting divorce or marital stability. If she began with a criticism such as "You're lazy and never do anything around the house", rather than a specific complaint such as "You didn't take the rubbish out last night", the chances of long-term happiness were poor.

"The biggest lesson to be learnt from this study is that the way couples begin a discussion about a problem, how you present an issue and how your partner responds to you, is absolutely critical," said Professor Gottman.

Couples who later divorced began these talks with critical and defensive comments and less humour than those who stayed married over the course of the study. Of the 124 couples involved, 17 had divorced by the end of the period.

"Women need to learn how to soften their approach when they bring up a problem and men have to learn how to be more accepting of what she's saying," said Dr Sybil Carrere, co-author of the report. "The same issue can develop into a fight because the wife doesn't know how to present a problem and the husband doesn't know how to respond without becoming negative."

If a husband's initial reaction to his wife's opening criticism was defensive, then the couple were heading for a divorce. If he sought to not exacerbate her negativity, then they had a good chance of avoiding a break-up in years to come.

Anger or arguing were found not to be a threat to long-term marriage. Stonewalling or contempt were found to be far more damaging.

Penny Mansfield, director of One Plus One, a marriage research charity, said that the study was establishing the quality of the marital relationship. "In an era when couples stay together because of personal satisfaction, rather than pressure from society, how they deal with conflict is a very important indicator of a good relationship," she said.

The most common area of marital conflict was people feeling that they were not being understood emotionally and not feeling loved, followed by money and finances.

"What typically happens is that one person reaches out to the other to get the partner's interest and it just falls flat," said Professor Gottman. "The basic problem is emotional connectedness, and people are just asking their partner to 'show me you love me'. Many people live in an emotional desert. That's why they are so needy."

Julia Cole, spokeswoman for Relate, the marriage counselling service, and author of a forthcoming book, After the Affair, How to Build Love and Trust Again, said that she could now predict when a couple came for counselling what their problems were likely to be.

"There are observations and clues with couples which could predict their chances of keeping the marriage together," she said. "But the idea of having a test that can accurately predict the chances of divorce for anybody is unfair.

"People change throughout their marriages and to say that in 10 years' time they will divorce is not possible, because it is impossible to know what life will throw at them.".