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Have you ever, sadly, helped a friend through a divorce -- thinking, all the while, that you saw it coming, even back when they were still just dating?
The latest research confirms that whatever you observed, way back when, it was not "too soon to tell."
According to a new study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, marital happiness -- or lack thereof -- can be predicted based on factors present even before a couple walks down the aisle. By following 100 couples over 13 years, before marriage, into marriage, and -- for some -- out of marriage, the researchers tracked what, over time, seemed to keep couples together, and what drove them apart.
But just because those factors -- most involving communication skills -- show up early doesn't mean they're destiny. On the contrary: The factors that affect connubial bliss most directly are those that we have the ability to change. And early detection is key to the cure.
"Most couples don't try to deal with issues until they become big. They're entertaining divorce by the time they seek help," says Mari Clements, PhD, assistant professor of clinical psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary and a coauthor of the study. "But these are problems we can address, even prevent."
According to this study and other experts, what early dynamics show most clearly how a marriage will fare down the line? How can you use this news in your marriage -- or in the one you hope to have?
Basically, and not surprisingly, it's all -- or mostly -- about communication. For one thing, it's not what conflicts or differences you have, it's how you handle them. Patty, 46, of Fairfield, Connecticut, says that she and her husband have argued (or at least she's picked fights), since the day they met 28 years ago. "We get mad, but we don't get mean," she says. Likewise, says Jane, 46, of St. Louis, of her 20-year marriage; "We don't fight much, but when we do, we fight fair." Could be one reason they've both been married so long.
For the opposite scenario, think of the good will in your relationship as a "bank account," says Clements. "Two to three little hurtful comments a day are each like a little withdrawal from that account." Over time, even minor -- if regular -- sniping, sarcasm, and invalidation of feelings can add up, often to divorce.
In -- and before -- her marriage of three years, "I didn't trust my gut that my ex-husband was lying to me [about doing drugs]," says Leslie, 38, of Fresno, California. "My response was to lash out at him, in a mean, sniping way that was corrosive." While she doesn't blame herself, she says, "Had I been less nasty, he might have been more inspired to come clean and we could have worked things out more effectively."
Another specific -- and dangerous -- type of "emotional invalidation" doesn't start with conflict. "What we find most toxic is when one partner expects the other to be happy or supportive about something, but he or she is not," says Clements. Deborah, 46, of St. Louis, recalls that from early on, her husband-to-be was not supportive. Sure enough, when they were married: "I actually started to say nice things to myself in front of my husband -- like, 'Thank you, Deborah, for getting all the groceries' -- to try to train him to praise and support me," she says.
Then there's the matter of not saying what needs to be said. For now-divorced Rhiannon, 37, of Montclair, New Jersey, the spark faded quickly -- not itself an insoluble problem, but their communication fizzled with it. "We got very boring very fast," she says. "But when I got frustrated with his marathon TV-sports watching, I just turned away."
Remember, though, these issues are not time bombs that, once set, are bound to go off no matter who you choose. People are making better choices about whom to consider saying "I do" to in the first place. "Couples are waking up to how to choose a mate," says psychotherapist Judith Coche, PhD, who works frequently with couples. "We used to look for appearance, salary, and pizzazz, and we would find out too late that good lovers do not necessarily make good spouses. But the children of divorce helped us see that we need to understand marriage better before we do it ourselves. Many couples now ask for professional help to figure out their strengths and weaknesses before they get engaged."
What's the most important "strength" to look for? Ask yourself: "How well does this person treat you -- and other people?" says clinical social worker Rob Scuka, PhD, MSW, executive director of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement (www.nire.org). This is why many women keep an eagle eye on how a guy treats the waiter on the first date. "What's really important lies beyond the particulars of any issue at hand," says Scuka, echoing the results of the divorce study. "How the other person responds to your expression of concern is going to tell you an awful lot about that person."
Wanting someone to treat you well seems obvious. But it's also very human, says Scuka, to be so drawn to someone -- and so eager to be in a relationship -- that you give them the benefit of the doubt, focus on an ideal rather than on what's real. And it's especially hard to sort out when much, or at least part, of the relationship is good. Even the people in the study who wound up divorced, says Dr. Clements, began as "happy couples planning marriage, not doing the nasty things you see on soap operas and Divorce Court."
So it's crucial to look beyond your dreams of marriage and beneath your other attachments -- and hear what your gut is saying. The divorced women interviewed for this story all wished they had. "Don't dismiss internal doubts -- they're warning signals trying to get your attention," says Scuka. "If something's concerning you, it's important to put it on the table and communicate. Red flags don't have to signal the end of the line."
Adds Coche, "Prevention is more effective than repair. Once bad habits begin to erode the marriage, it's harder to fix." Seeking help doesn't mean the potential marriage is "in trouble" -- quite the contrary. Experts say couples can benefit from even a session or two of premarital counseling.
Do keep an eye on your expectations, though. While it's fair to ask someone to adjust, it's not fair to expect someone to change. "People cannot change their basic essence even if they try, and it is futile to demand that they do so," says Andrew Christensen, PhD, professor of psychology at UCLA and author of Reconcilable Differences (Guilford, 2002).
"To love and marry someone, you must accept the essence of the other person, who he or she is," Guilford continues. "You can push for change at the periphery, but not at the core. Marriage is a package deal; you don't get a line-item veto over your partner's personality where you can discard the traits you don't like."
That's what Leslie learned, the hard way. "I figured 'He's a little wild, but he'll calm down when we get married.' I thought I could just give him a personality makeover," she says. "But you can't change people. You need to accept what you get and stay, or if you can't, move on." Finally, she did, learning -- eventually -- that you need to trust your gut when something's good, too. "Sometimes I need to pinch myself 'cause things are so honest and wonderful," she says of her current marriage. We do get a chance to "fix" our marriages before they happen -- and we often get second chances, too.