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Health & Sex

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Math May Tell Which Marriages Last

Calculus, More Than Chemistry, Predicts Future Divorce Rates

Masters and Disasters of Marriage continued...

"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."

Make or Break Factors

Some of the most significant factors were the nonverbal cues. "For example, there's a facial expression of contempt in which the left lip corner moves to the side and creates a dimple. We see it all the time in couples who are going to break up - and it's huge in our mathematical formula," Gottman tells WebMD. "Eye rolling and sighing in response to a partner's comment are also very big negative behaviors."

Scoring high on the positive end: Words or actions that show empathy, support, or just interest in what the mate expresses about contentious topics -- for instance, supporting words or gestures such as an "I-hear-you-sweetie" nod.

"On the positive side, humor and affection are probably the two most important," says Gottman, who directs the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle and is professor emeritus of psychology at UW. "But you even get some, but not many, positive points for just bringing up a problem in neutral terms, without emotion."

In addition to predicting divorce with the 5-to-1 ratio of positive-to-negative interactions, Murray says the model can actually predict when it's likely to occur: Couples with a steep drop from a neutral point on their "stock chart" typically divorced within five years; a more gentle downward spiral suggested a breakup after 16 years of marriage.

The 700 couples were drawn from six separate studies conducted by Gottman over the past 32 years. "They include the entire spectrum of married people -- young newlyweds, couples with small children, those with teenaged kids, seniors, even same-sex relationships." The actual mathematical formula has been tested on them for 13 years, and many couples are still being tracked.

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