Husband/wife dolls sinking in water
Photo: Don Farrall/Getty Images
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
A Show of Contempt 
As strange as it might sound, one of the clearest signs of marital trouble is a simple and common facial expression: eye-rolling. The same researchers at the University of Washington found that even when it's accompanied by a laugh or a smile, eye-rolling is harmful because of what it indicates: contempt, a sign that you no longer value your partner.

"This kind of sarcastic nonverbal gesture doesn't clearly state the person's disagreement—making it difficult for the recipient to respond," says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Ohio State University College of Medicine. She also notes that signs of contempt are a powerful indication that your relationship may need outside help. "While the first step is, of course, to stop the behavior, it's also important to explore the reasons behind it," she says.

The Balance of Power 
During my marriage, I often deferred to my husband when it came to deciding where we went on vacation and how we spent our weekends. It wasn't until we were divorced that I realized that our social lives rarely involved my favorite activities.

"When the social activities are controlled by one person, that is a risk factor for a relationship," says Howard Markman, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Denver. Markman says it's not enough to do something nice for your partner; you have to do "nice things in a way that's meaningful to your partner." That means asking for his honest opinion about how he prefers to spend his time, and then making plans—whether it's a romantic dinner or just watching Netflix at home—that accommodate both of your interests.

Staying in Sync
If you asked my husband why we split up, he would tell you that we just weren't compatible—despite the fact that we were both journalists, loved to travel, came from similar family backgrounds, and had dozens of friends in common. But Ted Huston, PhD, a professor in the department of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, notes that the simple fact of questioning whether you're still compatible with a partner appears to be an indicator of marital unhappiness.

In many marriages, "a lack of compatibility" is really a catchall phrase couples use to express general discontent about the relationship, Huston says. In fact, in his study of 168 Pennsylvania couples, those who eventually split up were no less compatible in their leisure interests and their ideas about marriage than those who stayed together.

Tara Parker-Pope is the wellness blogger for The New York Times and the author of For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage (Dutton)

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