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Math and Marriage: A Match Made in Heaven?

Formula predicts which couples will stick together

THURSDAY, Feb. 12, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- At first glance, the idea doesn't add up. How could a formula possibly predict which married couples are going to get divorced? But a team of mathematicians and a psychologist say they've figured out how to use numbers as a kind of crystal ball.

"Using the mathematical model, we can predict dissolution or divorce with 90 percent accuracy over four years," says Kristin Swanson, an adjunct research assistant professor of applied mathematics at the University of Washington.

The leader of the team, psychologist John Gottman, has been working out marriage formulas for some 15 years. His team will discuss its findings Feb. 12 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

To get a better handle on the interactions between husbands and wives, the researchers blended mathematics and psychology, two fields that normally don't have much to do with each other. "Before this model was developed, divorce prediction was not accurate," Gottman says in statement, "and we had no idea how to analyze what we call the masters and disasters of marriage -- those long-term happily married and divorced couples."

After studying hundreds of videotaped conversations between spouses, the researchers came up with a mathematical formula to gauge the stability of the relationships. Observers watch the chats and give each person points -- or take them away -- depending on how they react to their own emotions and those of their spouses. "Something like showing contempt would be scored a negative-four, while making your partner laugh would [be scored] a plus-two," Swanson says.

After the conversation is over, researchers plot the points on a chart. "You'll see something that looks like a Dow Jones Industrial Average of positives and negatives," she says.

According to the researchers, the marriage is in trouble if the ratio of positive-to-negative interactions is less than 5-to-1.

"When the masters of marriage are talking about something important, they may be arguing, but they are also laughing and teasing and there are signs of affection because they have made emotional connections," Gottman says. "But a lot of people don't know how to connect or how to build a sense of humor, and this means a lot of fighting that couples engage in is a failure to make emotional connections. We wouldn't have known this without the mathematical model."

The researchers have also found that ideal spouses consistently respond to each other in similar ways, but tend to keep their own emotions in mind, too, Swanson says. "If someone is reacting to every single subtlety of a partner, it's going to be hard to maintain," she says. "You don't have anything driving yourself."

If the tests show that a relationship is troubled, researchers can make hypothetical revisions to the conversations, changing how the spouses react to each other, and then see if it changes the overall picture, Swanson says. Based on the results, counselors can make suggestions to the couple about how they should interact.

"It's a balance, finding a balance for people for how much they respond to their own emotions vs. how much they respond to their spouses," Swanson says.

Two experts say they're intrigued by the team's findings. Catherine Cohan, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University, likes how the research analyzes not just positive and negative statements by spouses but also the interaction.

"Gottman's team has shown that some couples start a conversation on a positive note and continue to get more positive as the conversation goes on. Some couples start a conversation on a negative note and continue to get more negative as the conversation ensues," she says. "It is a particularly interesting pattern when the conversation starts out negative but one of the spouses says something positive, the other spouse follows suit, and they turn the direction of the conversation around and it becomes positive."

Gottman's "preliminary research has made it into relationship and communication texts almost as soon as he spoke the words," says Kandi Walker, an associate professor of communications at the University of Louisville. "I find this work interesting and quite groundbreaking. I believe human interactions are the basis for much of a person's happiness, and Gottman has cleverly found a way to give us a prescription for a good marriage."

More information

You can find a list of marriage-related resources at the National Marriage Project. You could also try a comprehensive page on family and marriage at Trinity College.

SOURCES: Kristin Swanson, Ph.D., adjunct research assistant professor, applied mathematics, University of Washington, Seattle; Catherine Cohan, Ph.D., assistant professor, human development and family studies, Pennsylvania State University, State College; Kandi Walker, Ph.D., associate professor, communications, University of Louisville, Ky.; Feb. 12, 2004, presentation, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Seattle
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