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Can you spot a good marriage? I was pretty sure I could, starting with my own. My husband and I rarely argued, we had similar careers, we shared common interests. Things weren't perfect, but we seemed to be humming along in harmony better than most other couples we knew. In fact, nobody was more surprised than we were when our 17-year marriage ended in a New Jersey divorce court.
It turns out, though, that the signs of trouble had been there all along, if only I'd known what to look for. Instead, I was judging my marriage by the wrong standards—which, I've since learned, most of us do. In one now-famous study, researchers asked therapists, married couples, and others to watch videotaped conversations of ten couples and try to identify the relationships that had ultimately ended in divorce. The results were abysmal—even the therapists guessed wrong half the time.
So how can you diagnose the health of your relationship? Armed with huge volumes of data on married couples, scientists have identified some simple but powerful indicators that can help couples recognize marital strife long before their relationship hits the skids.
The Way You Were
Imagine a couple that go hiking on their first date. In a happy marriage, the wife might tell the story this way: "We got terribly lost that day. It took us hours to find our way back, but we laughed about how neither of us had a good sense of direction. After that, we knew better than to plan another hiking trip!"
But if the relationship was stressed, she might tell the story this way: "He lost the map, and it took hours to find our way back. After that, I never wanted to go hiking again." Same story, but instead of reflecting a sense of togetherness—using pronouns like "we" and "us"—it's laced with negativity. Research has shown that analyzing what's known as the marital narrative—the way you talk about the good and bad times of your early years together—is about 90 percent accurate in predicting which marriages will succeed or fail.
Had I been paying attention, my own how-we-met story could have told me a lot about how I was feeling in my marriage. Early in the relationship, when asked about our first date, I recounted a magical evening that ended with a walk around the Texas capitol building in Austin. I often laughed about the fact that I was limping the whole time because I'd recently had surgery on my foot. But later in my marriage, I changed the story slightly, always adding, "Of course, he didn't even notice."
Fight or Flight
When my husband and I first married, I felt lucky that we almost never fought. But studies show it's a mistake to judge the quality of a relationship by how much or how little you argue, particularly in the early years.
University of Washington researchers studied newlywed couples and learned, not surprisingly, that those who rarely argued were happier in the relationship than those who fought often. But three years later, the findings had reversed. Couples with an early history of bickering had worked out their problems and were more likely to be in stable marriages. The couples who'd avoided conflict early on were more likely to be in troubled relationships or already divorced.
Obviously, fighting that includes violence or verbal abuse is never acceptable. But most marital spats represent an opportunity to resolve conflicts and make things better. "We need to learn to tolerate conflict in our relationships," says Carolyn Cowan, a longtime marriage and family researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.
Next: More marriage mistakes to avoid
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