Four things that will wreck your marriage… and five that’ll save it

DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: Four things that will wreck your marriage… and five that’ll save it

The recent announcement that divorce laws are to be relaxed is a welcome one. 

Most couples who get married hope to live happily ever after, yet the brutal reality is that more than 40 per cent of modern marriages end in divorce. 

In that case, why make getting divorced more difficult and stressful than it has to be? Fortunately, there are scientifically proven ways to protect your relationship.

I met my wife, Clare, at the Royal Free Hospital Medical School in September 1980, when we both started our medical training.

One of the more surprising ways of predicting whether a couple will stay married is by studying the way they smile

Spookily enough it was the Dean of the Royal Free who first predicted that we would get married. Or rather, at the start of the course, he told a room full of first-year medical students (which included the two of us) that based on what had happened to previous groups of students, four of us in that room would marry. He was spot-on.

But could he or anyone else have predicted that not only would we get married but we would stay happily married?

Over the past 30 years psychologists have put a lot of time and resource into trying to predict which unions are likely to last, and which are likely to end in divorce. They have also identified the things couples should work on if they want to stay happily together.


One of the more surprising ways of predicting whether a couple will stay married is by studying the way they smile – because it turns out it can be a real giveaway about your true feelings. There are basically two types of smile, a genuine one and a fake one. The genuine one, called the Duchenne smile, is named after a French doctor who 200 years ago studied facial expressions.

A Duchenne smile involves the contraction of two sets of muscles: the zygomaticus major, which raises the corners of your mouth, and the orbicularis occuli, the ring of muscle around your eye sockets. A genuine smile activates both, so that the corners of your mouth turn up and your eyes crinkle.

A fake ‘Say Cheese’ smile, on the other hand, normally just involves the zygomaticus major, which, unlike the orbicularis occuli, is under voluntary control.

Based on studying smiles, psychologists have created something called FACS, the Facial Coding System, which they use to measure the intensity and genuineness of a smile. So what does this have to do with marriage? Well, in a study done in 2001, psychologists from the University of California asked a group of women, then in their 50s, to fill in questionnaires about their relationships and how happy they were with life.

There are basically two types of smile, a genuine one and a fake one. The genuine one involves the contraction of two sets of muscles which raise the corners of your mouth and the ring of muscle around your eye sockets

The psychologists also analysed photos of these same women when they were aged 21, and rated them using the FACS. The women who smiled most naturally in the pictures taken 30 years earlier were far more likely to have got married and stayed happily married than those whose smiles were more obviously false.

A later series of studies, involving men and women, again found a strong link: those who smiled least convincingly in old photos, compared to those who smiled most naturally, were five times more likely to be divorced at some point in their life.

The lead researcher, psychologist Professor Matthew Hertenstein at DePauw University in Indiana, thinks it could be because ‘smiling people attract other happier people, and the combination may lead to a greater likelihood of a long-lasting marriage.’


Clearly there’s more to a happy marriage than the ability to smile, however naturally. To find out what other factors are important, some years ago I visited the so-called Gottman Love Lab.

The proper name for the Love Lab is The Relationship Research Center, a specialist institute set up near Washington University in 1986 by Professor John Gottman.

He invites couples to his institute, then studies them intensely. This can involve wiring them up to measure how their bodies react when they argue, as well as filming them with ultra-fast cameras to capture something called micro-expressions – subtle facial movements that are almost imperceptible, but are thought to indicate thoughts and feelings.

He then follows them up many years later to see if they are still together. What his team have learned from studying thousands of couples is that there are a number of negative things that couples do. He calls them ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, and they predict divorce.

The main things that are toxic to a long-term relationship are:

1 Contempt: This includes making sarcastic responses, eye-rolling, sneering and mockery while disagreeing. Contempt is not only the main predictor of divorce but research has shown that couples who are contemptuous of each other are more prone to infectious diseases such as coughs and colds.

2 Criticism: It’s OK to say ‘I don’t think that was a good idea’ but it is not OK to make sweeping negative statements about your partner’s character or personality such as: ‘You are so irritating. Why on earth do you always do that?’

3 Defensiveness: This is something I am occasionally guilty of – getting cross and snapping back at Clare when she challenges me. It just makes things worse.

Making sarcastic responses, eye-rolling, sneering and mockery while disagreeing are all main things that are toxic to a long-term relationship

4 Stonewalling: This means acting as if you don’t care what your partner is saying. Like defensiveness, it fans the flames.


On a more positive note, Gottman also has recommendations for couples to work on for a happy marriage. They include:

1 Nurturing your mutual fondness and admiration. This means doing things such as genuinely celebrating the other person’s successes and commiserating with their failures. When your partner tells you about their day, look up; engage. Gottman found that couples who put a positive spin on their marriage were far more likely to stick together.

2 Turn towards each other. We regularly make what Gottman calls ‘bids’ for our partner’s attention. This might mean reading something you find amusing out loud from the newspaper or pointing to something interesting out of the window. How your partner responds is important. Turning towards you and saying something like ‘That’s interesting’ is good. Ignoring them or saying ‘Stop droning on’ is clearly bad.

In his studies, Gottman found it was the couples who turned towards each other at least 90 per cent of the time who were still married six years later. Those who did so less than a third of the time were soon in trouble.

3 Build love maps. This sounds very American but what it really means is, take an interest in your partner’s world. Remember and celebrate important events in each other’s lives. Remember what their friends are called. Know each other’s goals, worries and hopes.

4 Be kind to each other. Kindness is the other side of contempt. It is getting up and helping with the cooking, when asked, even if you are feeling shattered. It is resisting the urge, when you having a row, to say something destructive.

5 Solve your solvable problems. Gottman says you shouldn’t let problems fester, but get them out there when both of you are in a positive frame of mind. This almost always involves compromise and being tolerant of each other’s faults.

Getting married is not the be-all-and-end-all. Plenty of people choose to stay single and, despite claims to the contrary, there is no great evidence that being married confers unique benefits. That said, I do thoroughly recommend it.

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