Cal psychologist studies keys to successful relationships

A UC Berkeley psychologist spent 25 years studying one of life's greatest mysteries -- why some couple endure while others fail.
February 12, 2014 7:29:54 PM PST
It's one of life's great mysteries -- why some couples endure while others fail. But it's less of a mystery thanks to a UC Berkeley psychologist who has spent a quarter of a century monitoring successful couples.

It seems like yesterday, but it happened 39 years ago.

Barbara and Gene Ferguson walking down the aisle, launching themselves into that great cosmic bet also known as marriage. Look at them now.

Barbara: "You've got to have the Ying and the Yang in life."
Gene: "That's right."
Wayne: "Who's the Ying?"
Gene: "I'll be Ying."
Barbara: "He'll be Ying I'll be Yang."

No, they don't argue much, and that's no surprise to the psychologist sidling up to the Skype monitor -- Dr. Robert Levenson from UC Berkeley. The Fergusons were part of a 156 couple, 25 year study about the secrets to marital longevity.

"It's probably a third in who you pick, a third in the hand you're dealt, and a third in the set of skills you develop as a couple," Dr. Levenson said.

Wayne: "Is he the same man you married?"
Barbara: "Oh, absolutely."

"It's a hard road," Dr. Levenson said. "And we make it harder, I think, by piling so many expectations on it."

"If you are going to spend your lifetime trying to change somebody who is never going to change, what is the point?" Barbara asked.

She owns a child day service. He's retired from San Francisco State. They dated almost five years, then had two sons, and survived them.

The study showed that if a couple makes it past 15 years, they have a good shot at making it long term, as long as they communicate respectfully.

Wayne: "Does he know how to listen?
Barbara: "Oh, very well."
Gene: "I've got big ears."
Wayne: "Did he have to learn?"
Barbara: "No, I don't think so. He always listens to me, always listens to what I have to say, even when if t was over and over and over again.

One last note -- the Fergusons are sticklers when they say they have been married 39 years, it's really closer to 40. When is their anniversary? February 15th.

Gene: "Day after Valentine's Day!"
Barbara: "February 15."
Wayne: "Why?"
Gene: "So Gene won't forget!"

Marital perfection, apparently, does have its limits.


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