Thursday, March 08, 2007

Damage & Baggage - Does it Mean Your Relationships Are Doomed?

From Po:

One of prevailing assumptions we have about the stability of marriage & relationships is this: if you had some bad shit in your past, especially your childhood, you're not going to do as well in relationships as a grown up. Psychologists call this the Theory of Enduring Vulnerabilities. All marriages are likely to endure stressful events, and the way we react to those events is partly regulated by the way those stressful events echo childhood difficulties.

To state this more plainly, the more baggage you bring in to a marriage increases the risk your marriage won't last. People with fewer enduring vulnerabilities should have a better capacity to adapt - and deal - and communicate; people with more enduring vulnerabilities will not handle problems as well.

So that's the theory.

The counter-theory might be something like this: the more baggage you've had to deal with, the better you got at dealing/communicating/adapting. This learned response from said baggage cancels out its detrimental legacy. Our psychological scars might open up vulnerabilities, sure, but they also bring us awareness and attentiveness. We're seasoned. We'll handle problems fine.

So you might not think this theory/counter-theory could ever be tested, but in fact it has.

This theory was indeed recently put to a quite interesting test, in a well-managed study by researchers at Ohio State University. Ten years ago, they put 90 newlywed couples into a study, interviewing them extensively. Ten years later, they followed up, to learn who was divorced, and who was still married, and how satisfied they were in their marriage. So it measured both marital stability (divorce?) and marital satisfaction (happy?). For what it's worth - and this is an important caveat - these 90 newlywed couples began their marriage very satisfied and happy. They were blissful newlyweds, with very positive outlooks. None was dealing with any form of mental illness (the couples had been screened for that). This would partly explain why, ten years out, only 17 of the 90 couples had divorced. (The national average, for first marriages, predicts that 33% would divorce in ten years).

So these researchers were looking for models that could predict who would divorce, and who might be unhappy in marriage. They were checking for everything, from how these couples argued to their heartrates to their hormone levels. In their extensive interviewing, they applied the model of Enduring Vulnerabilities. They counted how many stressors (baggage) each person brought to the marriage, and how severe they were. What they found was surprising. Enduring Vulnerabilities was not a predictor. People with more baggage did not fare worse in marriage, either for the likelihood of divorce, or for the likelihood of being unhappily married.

So if that's not a predictor, what is?


The best predictor of future divorce and unhappiness was the presence, shortly after marriage, of elevated stress hormones when arguing - epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol.

To make this clear, imagine two newlywed couples. Both tell you how happy they are to be married. Both believe, equally, they're in this til death do them part. To all appearances, they are equally enthusiastic.

The researchers then basically provoked a fight. The couple chose a topic of some contention between them, and they discussed it for half an hour. During this argument (if it got that heated), the researchers were occasionally checking their hormone levels through a blood draw. The couples who stressed out a lot, during that argument, were the ones who were divorced or unhappy ten years later.

For what it's worth, the reseachers also watched how the couples argue, and employed a scoring system that kinda measures whether couples arguments turn negative and get nasty. This turned out not to be a predictor, any more than enduring vulnerabilities. So a couple can get testy and mean-spirited on the outside (in what they say to each other), but the real predictor is how much stress they're going through on the inside (measured by their hormones).


Anonymous John (funky uncle mustard) said...

This is interesting, but I'm not sure "hormones" alone tell the whole story. Does something cause the production of these hormones? If so, what is driving their production?

How can one measure "commitment?" If I truly believe I'm going to stick it out "til death do us part" I'm probably less likely to go down the divorce path. I'm not saying that I understand this - just sort of thinking out loud.

Thanks for sharing the studies.

6:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You and Ashley are delving into some incredibly insightful areas. It's mind boggling in the sense that what our society REALLY needs is not discussed in the media at large. Marriage is the precursor to creating that fundamental unit / cell of society called "family". But what a shame that our media instead of educating us about how to maintain and REFINE relationships, spews out meaningless garbage. Kudos to you for bringing to light topics that REALLY matter and which are changing lives. I read your blog often and I hope all of America does as well.

Now, what suprised me about this research a bit was that I had always thought the biggest predictor of divorce and unhappiness was finances, followed by other factors. Is this research essentially saying that despite ALL other factors, hormones single handedly determined the probability of divorce? What a biomarker!
I've always been intrigued by this sort of research. A while back a sports med researcher claimed he could predict who could run faster from a among a group of track athletes by determining the ratios and lengths of their fingers. Shockingly he was shown to be very accurate in the television documentary I was watching.

So what is the bottom line of this research? Is this something to which we are predisposed? Hormones after all are set in a way within us. How about heredity? What role does it play in setting us up for failure or success (divorce vs. happy marriage)? Can individuals learn how to modulate their hormone levels for a happier marriage or is a physiological intervention necessary? What role does hormone therapy play if any? What about human growth hormone and the slew of research out there that it is good for us (men at least, more than woman), in that as we age our testosterone levels drop slightly each year after age 30 and is a big factor in depression and overall happiness?

I have a ton of other questions and will be glued to this blog to see how this topic develops.
Thank you for this post.


7:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does this blog show "0" comments and why has not other blog been posted?
I've been reading this blog with interest. Recently it seems , there is no more treasure to be found here.
What gives? :-(

5:35 PM  
Blogger John Wisse said...

Po -

You are close. Hormones is part of the answer. Dig deeper my friend and you will find perhaps, as my own amateur theory suggests, that pharmaceuticals may be more near the root cause that affect hormonal balance. A lot of people are on a lot of medication and it makes a large number of us "drama queens". We seem to have achieved this new notoriety (just watch or listen to most any talk show)that we seemingly all must live with some higher level and display of personal drama in our respective lives.

In my daily observations, I've found that while men seem to have a long history of criticizing women because of their emotional baggage, their hormones, their very own personal drama -- that it appears many of these same men have just as much, if not more willingness and aptitude, to display equally high levels of emotion and hormonal influence. We've become too soft as a nation. We are losing our capabilities of mental focusing and taking the easy way out through emotional outpouring.

As I live only minutes from Ohio State, I find that the research makes only for interesting reading, but rarely do such stories seem to ever reveal much depth. I'd say there are systems of vast complexities which may enable some people to have a better relationship track record than others. But why, exist in misery in a relationship, simply to prove a point. I could take the same topic and generate a different correlation about getting married on an odd or even day, when your blood pressure is above or below a certain number, or within so many days before or after a birthday. It's meaningless, other than to say successful long-term relationships involve many factors to age well and long. Good topic, though.

J Wisse

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Fareed said...

Mr. Wisse,

To defend the article that Po posted, I would like to highlight and question a very general theme running through your email, which is this:
that 'truth' can be created according to the individual and that one can take any conjecture and 'prove' it using the plethora of statistics and literature available on any subject to "back it up" so to speak.
I must for the sake of logic and science completely disagree with you sir.
You see sir, in science, we have controls and measures that are used to make certain we arrive at 'truth' / fact and leave no holes in our conjectures and conclusions. In other words, we anticipate our very own questions in designing these experiments and take into account those factors. It would be better to know exactly what questions you think the researchers overlooked to make this very important study "meaningless" as you say. I seriously doubt you could convince me that as you say, "I could take the same topic and generate a different correlation about getting married on an odd or even day, when your blood pressure is above or below a certain number, or within so many days before or after a birthday." Are you serious sir? You say this to mean that you can GENERATE "meaning" solely by manipulating words, without having a correlation to objective reality?
To arrive at a meaningful conclusion we must have agreed upon definitions first and foremost and I think you must have other definitions for the words you are using in your post.

But let me move on to something else. When you state that "...there are systems of vast complexities which may enable some people to have a better relationship track record than others.", I do not think that Po in his post has implied in any way that it is simply a matter of hormones, but that the researchers showed that it played a HUGE role. Furthermore, these researchers further tried to expel their own bias through controls and measures put in place and that they took into account many factors to essentially 'find a pattern'. They did not go into this experiment thinking ahead of time that "hormones" were the leading cause of a failed relationship, as I understand it.
Your statement also seems to indicate that you do not believe facts can be isolated in the real world and pinned down. Thus you do not believe in 'absolute' truth in regards to at least the scientific method being able to quantify and verify it. This is a wonderful thing too for it can be tested. Let us say, you do not 'believe' caffeine has any effect, physiologically or psychologically on your body. Would you be willing to bet me money that I could record differences in your heart rate and other factors to show that there is indeed an impact which is beyond your control? And yes, even if you were a Tibetan monk, a measurable amount of caffeine would have an expected effect on your body physiology.
The scientific method is the GOLD standard by which the world has moved forward from the dark ages of existence in the past. That it is being applied to human behavior is a natural progression. More and more, the scientific method, when applied correctly (using double blind studies, and putting control measures in place), has furthered our understanding of how humans behave. Psychology once used to be termed a "pseudoscience". Now it is a mainstream field of study that has been furthered by the scientific method.

So my questions to you would be.

* What exactly makes this study "meaningless"?

* How does living a certain distance from a university, make this study for 'interesting reading'? Do you mean to state that if one lives further away it is not interesting? That 'interest' is impacted by distance from where the study was conducted?

*What do you mean by the term "depth" and what sort of "depth" are you seeking? Is this a general "notion" or an exact term that you can further explain so we may understand your point?

*What do you mean by the use of the word "theory". Are you confusing this with 'opinion' or your general "notion" of things / life?

*When you state that "pharmaceuticals may be more near the root cause that affect hormonal balance" , how is this related to the article? I thought the article stated that the observed hormone levels during times of stress were the number one indicator of when a relationship failed? That "how" we /our bodies responded to stimuli within our relationship determined whether it would be stable. "How" being how we responded 'hormonally'.

I can certainly say that this is an area that needs further study, but to say that it is meaningless is to say that one did not understand the study. And so this judgement of yours is not an indication of the lack of scholarship or scientific rigor that may have gone in to the research.

3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. That's the single most hopeful thing I've ever read about the stability of marriages - as it directly relates to me.

I also remember reading similar research by Dr. John Gottman.


7:37 PM  
Anonymous Mike Murray said...

Hi Po,

Can you post a link to the original research? I'd be interested in reading further into the topic.


10:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm curious -- the presence of stress hormones would imply a correlation, but doesn't explain the cause of why there are more stress hormones.

Are some people pre-disposed to be stressed out? Or is there another more causal factor? For example, maybe financial issues tend to really stress people out, as opposed to dividing housework. (I have no idea.)

In Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, there is a researcher that is able to identify couples that are likely to breakup by how the couples interact. Is it possible that certain attitudes like contempt or disgust generate those stress levels? I'm curious because stress levels sounds like a biological determinant, when I imagine stress is perhaps the byproduct of something people can control (or another factor).

Maybe you can tell I'm a stressed out person.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

It sounds like n=90 and they were stratifying for a lot of exposure variables (hormones, heartrates, arguments, personal baggage), and testing for associations with several outcomes (unhappy marriage, divorce) at the same time, which means their bin sizes must have been ludicrously small. I seriously doubt this study had enough power to detect a true association even if it were there.

6:54 PM  

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