COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A team of scientists at The Ohio State University Medical Center investigating the dynamics of marriage has uncovered a surprising set of factors which can help predict which marriages will last, and which will end in divorce.
The research team, led by Dr. Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychiatry, studied a group of 90 newlywed couples over a period of ten years, and measured individual personality differences, problem-solving behaviors, and hormone levels.
"These couples were pristine," says Kiecolt-Glaser. "We eliminated any couples who exhibited risky behaviors or profiles that might normally interfere with relationships, like smoking or drinking, or a diagnosis of depression or other disorder. We wanted to have couples who had everything going for them. These couples were gloriously happy with each other."
During the initial phase of research, the couples were asked to discuss a topic that normally caused conflict in their relationship, and blood samples were drawn hourly for a 24-hour period to measure the levels of stress in the relationship.
The researchers tracked down all 90 couples ten years after the initial health and behavioral inventory, and they found that 19 per cent were divorced, or about half the number national divorce statistics would suggest. "This tells us we really did a pretty good job of choosing couples with a good chance of successful marriage," says Kiecolt-Glaser.
When investigators examined the variables that would best predict who would stay married and who would divorce, however, they were surprised. "The literature suggests that behavioral matters, such as negativity or aggression might be the best predictors of divorce," says Kiecolt-Glaser, "but we found that the best predictors of all were hormone levels." Three of four hormones we measured were consistently and significantly elevated in the couples who divorced, and the differences were most pronounced in the women.
The team measured the levels of epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, ACTH, and cortisol. "The data show that women, in particular, register much higher levels of stress hormones, like epinephrine, than men do, in times of conflict," says Kiecolt-Glaser. "These higher levels of stress hormones do not go away. They stay elevated during more routine interaction, and are even elevated at night, when they are sleeping." Kiecolt-Glaser says women's hormone responses are better predictors of a lasting relationship than men's. Interestingly, she adds, the individuals with elevated hormone levels were not necessarily "hot reactors" in other situations. "It's not genetic, as far as we can tell. It looks like it is simply a reaction to the presence of the spouse," she says.
Additionally, says Kiecolt-Glaser, the couples who divorced did not offer significantly different descriptions of each other's happiness than married couples did in their initial assessment as newlyweds. "They were very happy in what they were saying, but what their hormones are telling us is that some part of them was very uneasy."
In other words, your body is speaking a language your conscious mind does not understand. Kiecolt-Glaser says one way a person might become more in touch with unconscious messages is to "listen to your gut. It may be telling you something."
Collaborators in the research include Ronald Glaser, PhD, Cynthia Bane, PhD, and William B. Malarkey, MD, all of The Ohio State University. The National Institute of Mental Health provided support for the project. Kiecolt-Glaser presented the study findings at the 22nd annual scientific session of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, in Seattle, Washington, March 23rd.