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2 questions to tell you if your love has staying power
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Surveys about love and personal preferences abound, but a pair of economists at the University of Virginia have come up a way to quantify marriage quality using just two questions they say will predict staying power. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Surveys about love and personal preferences abound, but a pair of economists at the University of Virginia have come up with a way to quantify marriage quality using just two questions they say will predict marital staying power.

Their study was published in the journal International Economic Review.

Leora Friedberg and Steven Stern analyzed questions that were part of the National Survey of Families and Households, administered by the University of Wisconsin. When they analyzed the questions in the survey of 4,242 households and then compared them with divorces six years later, they found strong predictors of marriage failure or success in the answers to just two of them.

The two questions that have so much to say about marriage?

"How happy are you in your marriage relative to how happy you would be if you weren't in the marriage?" The answers crossed a spectrum from "much better" to "much worse."

And, "How do you think your spouse answered the question?" Just over four in 10 correctly predicted the spouse's response. Of the majority who got it wrong, about one-fourth had "serious" discrepancies in their overall happiness. Such mistakes in judging the quality of marriage increase the risk that one will base actions on misperception and blow it.

"If I believe my wife is really happy in the marriage, I might push her to do more chores or contribute a larger portion of the family income," said Stern in background material. "If, unbeknownst to me, she's actually just lukewarm about the marriage, or she's got a really good-looking guy who is interested in her, she may decide those demands are the last straw and decide a divorce would be a better option for her."

They found that divorce rates went up in "strong linear correlation" with reported unhappiness by one partner and with a spouse overestimating that partner's happiness.

The average divorce rate overall was 7.3 percent among those surveyed, but when one misjudged the spouse's feelings, it increased to between 9 and 11.8 percent. It climbed even more, to as much as 14.5 percent, if the misperception was off by more than one response category, the researchers said.

When both spouses said they'd be worse or much worse off without each other, the divorce rate dropped to below 5 percent.

The news release about the study said the two professors have, with this research, "put themselves among a very small group of economists in history to have plausibly identified evidence of love in the real world."

"The idea of love here is that you get some happiness from your spouse simply being happy," Friedberg said. "For instance, I might agree to do more house chores, which reduces my personal happiness somewhat, but I get some offsetting happiness simply knowing that my partner benefits."

Two questions seems really manageable when you consider the 36 questions exploring love and compatibility developed by Arthur Aron at State University of New York at Stony Brook that was published not long ago in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Love has been in the news a lot lately, the conversation ranging from soulmates to compatibility questions. Mandy Len Catron in the New York Times seems to capture the gist of several recent stories: "Love didnt happen to us. Were in love because we each made the choice to be."

Or as Sophie Kleeman wrote for of Aron's 36 questions: "The studies are appealing precisely because they give us potential answers to complex questions.

Mic's Ellie Krupnick wrote about the 36-question survey popularized by the New York Times, "We can't control who we fall in love with, no more than we can write mathematical equations to conjure up a Prince or Princess Charming. But the beauty of the 36 questions is that they remind us what we can control, taking the complex question of love and distilling it down into something more attainable for even the most romantically frustrated among us."