Can the Government Prevent Divorce?

Researchers say that they can—and some states feel they should—reduce the likelihood of divorce by altering the course of bad marriages in the making
Pre-marriage crossexamination

THE bride-to-be, a graphic designer, was forty years old and about to be married for the first time, to a businessman. At her pastor's suggestion, she and her fiancé filled out a questionnaire to measure the strengths and weaknesses of their relationship—165 questions on their personalities, backgrounds, values, and aspirations. How did you answer this question, she asked him in the car afterward. And this? And this? Before the ride home ended, they had broken their engagement.

Whenever Mike McManus, a religion columnist and the founder of Marriage Savers, an organization that works with churches to strengthen marriages, tells this story, audiences roar approval. This is a success story, he says, and the kind of thing we need more of: a process that will reveal any likelihood of long-term incompatibility, and thus spare would-be marriage partners the pain and expense of a seemingly inevitable divorce. Some others making war on the divorce rate do not favor such a test, but fervently endorse teaching basic marriage skills to all engaged couples.

The emotional, health, social, and economic costs associated with marital conflict and family dissolution—including delinquency, depression, poverty, and crime, and especially the devastating harm done to children—have been well documented. For some, the solution is to close the doors tighter on marriage through stricter divorce laws, as Louisiana has recently done by legislating "covenant" marriage as an option. Yet study after study indicates that children are damaged less by divorce per se than by exposure to intense conflict, whether their families are intact, dissolving, or broken.

The divorce crisis has thrown a spotlight on the field of marital research and education, which attacks domestic instability and unhappiness at its beginnings, before marriages deteriorate, or even before they start—though some programs can be used later to repair troubled marriages. The premarital questionnaire that broke up the graphic designer's engagement is just one tool in a psycho-educational arsenal that includes courses on communication, conflict resolution, and marriage enhancement. These tools are piquing the imagination of policymakers here and abroad. In the past year legislators in at least eleven states have considered whether such programs should be legally required or encouraged before marriage licenses are granted. The U.S. military is strongly encouraging married enlistees to attend marriage-education classes, and many members of the clergy nationwide are urging other pastors to use systematic premarital education for all engaged couples.

Over the past two decades government-funded researchers have declared that they can predict with about 90 percent accuracy which engaged couples will divorce. Other researchers have developed programs that, they say, can significantly change the odds for marriages that appear doomed. Since the advent of videotaping, in the 1970s, these social scientists have been able to observe and measure couples' interactions in the laboratory with greater and greater precision. The first university studies to emerge from this work compared distressed and nondistressed couples. The results demonstrated that the two groups communicated differently. Longitudinal studies followed, in which couples were observed regularly over a number of years to determine which behaviors were most predictive of divorce. An early researcher in the field—regarded by many as its reigning genius—is John Gottman, who presides over a high-tech couples lab at the University of Washington at Seattle.

As a professor at Indiana University in the 1970s, Gottman began studying couples in his lab while they talked casually, discussed difficult issues, or tried to solve problems. Video cameras recorded every facial expression, gesture, and change of tone. Gottman was able to play back the videos for his subjects and ask them what they were feeling at particular moments.

Gottman has followed 658 couples, some for as long as fourteen years, some with more-intensive observation that monitors shifts in their heart rate and stress indicators in their blood and urine. Studying marriages in such minute detail, Gottman has been able to chart the effects of small gestures. Fairly early he discovered that when a spouse—particularly the wife—rolls her eyes while the other is talking, the marital EXIT sign is blinking fiercely. In fact, Gottman found that contempt, which is indicated by eye-rolling, is one of the four strongest divorce predictors—together with criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Gottman calls them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In study after study these behaviors identified those who would divorce with a remarkable accuracy of greater than 90 percent.

While Gottman was working from observed interactions, the social scientist David Olson and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota were developing a written survey of couples' attitudes, backgrounds, and behavior styles. With this tool Olson could predict which couples would divorce with almost the same accuracy as Gottman. And statistical analysis of demographic data also uncovered factors associated with a high divorce rate, including marriage at an early age, education deficiency, low economic status, religious differences, and parental divorce.

While Gottman and his followers worked backward from the negative side, Olson reported positive but similar findings. Couples who stayed happily married, he found, scored higher in such categories as realistic expectations, communication, conflict resolution, and compatibility.

Some of the researchers differentiated between "static" factors, those they couldn't expect to modify, such as age and economic status, and "dynamic" factors, such as communication patterns, and they zeroed in on the latter. If they could change the predictors, could they also change the prediction? They thought so. And they hoped that if they could change patterns that people had learned from their families, they might even raise the odds for those who had experienced a parental divorce or a previous divorce of their own. Thus the stage was set for research-based marriage education.

Presented by

Francine Russo writes frequently on human behavior and law. Her work has appreared in The New York Times Magazine and other national publications.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In