Before you walk down the wedding aisle, listen to your gut.
Researchers at Florida State University say people can tell if their marriage will be happy or not, even if they’re not able to verbalize the reasons why.
The research revealed two things: First, people’s conscious attitudes, or how they said they felt, did not always reflect their gut-level or automatic feelings about their marriage. Second, it was the gut-level feelings, not their conscious ones, that actually predicted how happy they remained over time.
“Everyone wants to be in a good marriage,” said Associate Professor of Psychology James K. McNulty. “And in the beginning, many people are able to convince themselves of that at a conscious level. But these automatic, gut-level responses are less influenced by what people want to think. You can’t make yourself have a positive response through a lot of wishful thinking.”
McNulty and his colleagues studied 135 heterosexual couples who had been married for less than six months and then followed up with them every six months over a four-year period. They found that the feelings the study participants verbalized about their marriages were unrelated to changes in their marital happiness over time.
To conduct the experiment, the researchers asked the individuals to report their relationship satisfaction and the severity of their specific relationship problems. The participants also were asked to provide their conscious evaluations by describing their marriage according to 15 pairs of opposing adjectives, such as “good” or “bad,” “satisfied” or “unsatisfied.”
To test gut feelings, the study participants were briefly flashed pictures of their spouses on a computer screen for one-third of a second. Immediately after, they were shown a positive word like “awesome” or “terrific” or a negative word like “awful” or “terrible.” The individuals simply had to press a key on the keyboard to indicate whether the word was positive or negative. The researchers used special software to measure reaction time.
“It’s generally an easy task, but flashing a picture of their spouse makes people faster or slower depending on their automatic attitude toward the spouse,” McNulty said. “People who have really positive feelings about their partners are very quick to indicate that words like ‘awesome’ are positive words and very slow to indicate that words like ‘awful’ are negative words.”
People with positive gut-level attitudes were really good at processing positive words but bad at processing negative words when those automatic attitudes were activated. The opposite was also true. When a spouse had negative feelings about their partner that were activated by the brief exposure to the photo, they had a harder time switching gears to process the positive words.
These experiments were performed only once, but the researchers checked in with the couples every six months and asked them to report relationship satisfaction. The researchers found that the respondents who unwittingly revealed negative or lukewarm attitudes during the implicit measure reported the most marital dissatisfaction four years later. The conscious attitudes were unrelated to changes in marital satisfaction.
“I think the findings suggest that people may want to attend a little bit to their gut,” McNulty said. “If they can sense that their gut is telling them that there is a problem, then they might benefit from exploring that, maybe even with a professional marriage counselor.”