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How to predict if your marriage will last (unless it's for TV ratings)

Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries seemed like the most miserable couple on earth even before they were married, so their 72-day grudge match seems shocking only to Kim K’s mom, who has a business empire at stake.

But, asked UCLA psychologist Thomas Bradbury, and graduate student Justin Lavner, what about those who seem incredibly happy being married to each other? If people in very satisfying marriages still get divorced, is there hope for any of us?

Earlier research by others had found that so-called “low-distress” couples who later divorced had been married an average of over six years and that the marital happiness reported by the husbands was actually higher than husbands in marriages that lasted.

Kevin Winter / Getty Images file

Kris Humphries and his now-estranged wife, Kim Kardashian, looked reasonably happy when they appeared on the Tonight Show on Oct. 4, but Kardashian filed for divorce just weeks later.

To explain the paradox, some proposed that very satisfied couples who later divorced went into marriage with less commitment or viewed the prospect of divorce more optimistically.

But that’s not what Lavner and Bradbury found. They sampled 136 couples starting within six months of the weddings, and followed them for 10 years, including a series of laboratory interactions and written surveys completed by the partners in each couple. All the couples started out very satisfied with their marriages and happy.    

Yet 21 couples, or 15 percent, divorced during the ten years.

Lavner and Bradbury looked at a number of factors like personality, stress, verbal aggression, problem solving skills, affect (meaning the emotions displayed), support behaviors (how encouraging or negative partners were) and parenthood status to see if any of them could predict which couples would stay married and which ones would divorce.

Parenthood didn’t predict and neither did most of the other factors we usually think of. Rather, the most significant link was with personality types, and the way a partner’s personality affected communication.

“Low-distress marriages that eventuated in divorce were characterized by the display of more anger and contempt and by more negative skills (e.g., disagreement, blame, invalidation) during laboratory-based discussions of important relationship difficulties,” their study published on Monday in the Journal of Family Psychology, stated. Verbally aggressive husbands also tended to wind up divorced.

That may seem obvious, but these traits were present from the very beginning. Yet the couples said they were thrilled with each other back then. 

It’s not really communication styles per se, or even chemistry, Bradbury explained, it’s basic, inbred, pre-existing personality. “There’s masking,” he theorized, stressing that he was extrapolating based on the study’s findings. Early on, if economic times, health, physical attraction are all positive, they can hide the way a negative personality eats away at the foundation. Then, when life’s inevitable troubles arrive, “the bottom drops out quickly,” Bradbury said.

“Our hunch is that being negative in general erodes the quality of the bond couples have. It’s who you are as a person.” The trouble might be there all along, it’s just that we’re often too blind to see it.   

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Follow Brian Alexander on Twitter at @BrianRAlexander.