The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

March 29th, 2009

Do the maths to see whether your marriage is doomed

Are you a validator or an avoider? Or are you a volatile? Your destiny, if you are married, might well turn upon the answer. According to Professor James Murray, who addressed the Royal Society on the subject last week, all marriages fall into one of five kinds of partnership, some of which are “stable” and some of which are not, between “validators”, “avoiders” and “volatiles”. This can easily be clinically observed and quantified and then the men in white coats can apply the maths and predict whether any particular marriage will last or end in divorce. Murray has come up with a simple algebraic formula for the purpose and he claims a 94% success rate. Titter ye not, as the late, great Frankie Howerd used to say. This may sound like those articles asking “Could you be a love rat?”, complete with idiotic questionnaires, but Murray’s universal predictor appears to be a great deal more respectable than that. Emeritus professor of mathematical biology at Oxford and emeritus professor of applied mathematics at the University of Washington, he is loaded with international academic scientific honours. So his work cannot be dismissed as soft science. We are so used to soft science and bad science, sensationally reported in the media, that we are bound to be sceptical. Think of the pseudo-scientific scares we have suffered, such as the terror so irresponsibly whipped up about vaccination and autism. It is surely quite natural to resist the idea that the many mysteries of marriage can be reduced to five easily identifiable types; we know how incomprehensible our own marriages can seem, quite apart from other people’s. And how one resents it: as Hamlet said, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were clumsily trying to figure him out, “Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery . . .” Hamlet thought it couldn’t be done. It seems he may have been wrong, so far as marriage goes. There may not be much mystery at all, whatever poets may say. Validators, according to Murray’s view, are spouses with mutual respect and shared attitudes. Avoiders are people who avoid conflict and agree to disagree. Volatiles are what they sound. According to the Murray marriage equation — the name alone makes one think of snake oil – a partnership of two validators is stable, as is one of two avoiders. When a validator is married to an avoider or to a volatile, their marriage is unstable and unlikely to last. Marriages between volatiles could go either way, it seems; as everyone knows, some people thrive on throwing things at each other. So that makes five types – it seems volatile-avoider matches are so unstable, Murray didn’t find any for his study. All this can be observed and quantified from the signals in 15 minutes of videotaped interview, in which husband and wife talk about something contentious such as money or mothers-in-law. In a 12-year American study of 700 newly married couples, Murray’s formula has been right in 94% of cases and, where divorce was predicted, 100% right. That makes it impossible to ignore. Nonetheless I find myself resisting it. Looking at a list of Murray’s marriage partners and partnership types, it’s obvious to me that my husband and I and our marriage are all these things, in all these combinations, all the time, and so are many of our friends. How we might have appeared in any 15-minute videotaping in all these years would have been a matter of chance. For instance, I quite often try, against my worse nature, to be a validator, saying nice things whenever I think of them, but I regularly get sidetracked into volatile mode and when I can’t think of anything nice to say I very often say it anyway. What’s more, busy women validators and volatiles are often forced to slip into avoidance simply to get things done, when there just isn’t time enough for volatility or validation or generally stoking the marital embers. Meanwhile one’s other half might be lurching from one role to another, for better or worse, from Superman to Badger to Eeyore. The whole of marriage seems to me to be institutionally unstable. Men and women change, their circumstances change and the power struggle between them is constantly shifting – even the sunniest of validators would admit that. The changing of the climate in a long-standing marriage is rather like one of those old wooden weather-vane toys: when the little man comes out into the sun, the little woman goes back in, and vice versa. And I believe very firmly that external factors have a powerful bearing on divorce. The great rise in divorce since the war must be explained in part by externalities; human nature cannot have altered much in 50 years but circumstances, including divorce law, have changed radically. When divorce isn’t socially acceptable, or financially possible, it doesn’t happen very much, and I think the credit crunch may well wobble the variables of Murray’s algebra. However, underlying his findings is an awkward truth, and beyond it, perhaps, is something faintly encouraging. If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were right, that may not be such a bad thing. Like Hamlet, we are culturally encouraged to believe that the complexities of each person’s life and relationships are both infinitely various and also peculiar to him or her. Everybody’s different, we are told. Perhaps to an expert observer we are not actually very varied and are quite easy to understand, as an entomologist might say of a nest of ants. Most GPs, psychologists, teachers and child protection workers will quickly observe certain types and certain typical behaviour, which the rest of us, with less concentrated experience of fewer people, will not notice at all. If Murray is right, we could learn to recognise which people we should probably avoid marrying and which would probably suit us. The same might also apply in principle to all kinds of recognisable personalities and behavioural syndromes about which we usually learn the hard way – personality disorders, certain kinds of mental illness, anorexia, extremes of introversion and extroversion and so on. It applies even to the significant differences between men and women. Understanding such things and learning about them when young might make an astonishing difference to the sum of human happiness, to validators, avoiders and volatiles alike.