June 18, 2004 -- It may not take an expert to spot a marriage bound for trouble. A new study shows a group of college students was able to predict with more than 80% accuracy which couples would still be together five years later by just observing their emotional interactions.
Researchers say the students used their innate abilities to recognize emotions and were surprisingly accurate in identifying troubled marriages.
"We aimed to see whether people could use their intuitive judgments to identify what couples were expressing emotionally and whether these judgments could predict relationship health," says researcher Robert Waldinger, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, in a news release.
"These judgments were highly predictive of relationship health and longevity. Investigators have typically attempted to make research on this topic more objective by using a complex list of rules and directions for identifying specific behaviors in intimate relationships," says Waldinger. "In contrast, we relied on people's natural abilities to recognize a variety of emotions."
Emotions Predict Marital Success
In the study, a group of six college students watched videotapes of couples discussing the most important areas of disagreement in their current relationship. The most common topics of discussion were communication problems, disagreement over finances, and conflict over household chores.
After watching the tapes, the raters were asked to rate the participants' emotional states, such as anger, fear, happiness, and sadness.
Researchers pooled their assessments, and found that the students predicted with 85% accuracy which couples would still be together after five years.
"How women and men express their emotions can affect the quality and stability of their marriage," says researcher Marc Schulz, associate professor of psychology at Bryn Mawr College, in the release. "In distressed marriages, men were more likely to display hostile emotions and an absence of empathy while women were more likely to express sadness and other vulnerable feelings along with an absence of empathy."
The results appear in the March issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.
Researchers say learning how to identify troubled relationships is an important step in providing resources to help couples improve their marriages.