Gut Instinct Can Tell Newlyweds Whether Their Marriage Will Be Happy
November 30, 2013

Newlyweds May Be Fooling Themselves

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

Ask any young couple who has recently exchanged vows and committed themselves ‘til death do they part how their relationship is and 10 times out of 10 you will receive the rosiest picture back. Ultimately, however, that stellar 100 percent return is not very realistic, especially when you consider the statistic that 50 percent of marriages will end in divorce. A new study out of Florida State University (FSU) has devised a way to gain insight into a relationship by paying attention to what the newlyweds don’t say.

Leading the research was associate professor of psychology at FSU, James K. McNulty. He and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments involving 135 heterosexual couples who had only been married for six months or less. The couples and their relationships were followed every six months over a four-year period.

The researchers claim the feelings toward their marriage that were verbalized by each couple had no relation to changes in their marital happiness over time. Rather, the gut instinct displayed during negative evaluations of their partners which were revealed without the subject’s knowledge was more accurate at predicting future happiness for the couple. The negative evaluations were drawn out of the subjects during a baseline experiment.

"Although they may be largely unwilling or unable to verbalize them, people's automatic evaluations of their partners predict one of the most important outcomes of their lives — the trajectory of their marital satisfaction," the team stated.

In their published paper, McNulty and colleagues identified two important findings. First, conscious attitudes, or at least how they reported they felt, were not necessarily reflective of the gut-level feelings about the relationship. And second, the gut-level feelings were directly related to how happy the marriage remained over time.

"Everyone wants to be in a good marriage," McNulty said. "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."

The experiment began with the researchers directing the subjects to report their relationship satisfaction along with the severity of any problems they might be encountering. Additionally, each couple was asked to consciously rank their marriage by using 15 pairs of opposing descriptors, such as “good” or “bad,” “satisfied” or “unsatisfied.”

As mentioned above, and of particular interest to the research team, was the finding that people’s automatic attitudes, or gut-level responses, played such a key role in long-term wedded bliss. To draw these responses from the participants, the team devised an experiment wherein a photo of the person’s spouse would flash on a computer screen for less than a second. This photo flash would immediately be followed by a positive word like “awesome” or “terrific” or a negative word like “awful” or “terrible.” Once this sequence was complete, the individual was instructed to press a key on the keyboard signifying whether the word they saw could be construed as positive or negative. The amount of time it took each subject to press the key was accurately monitored by special software.

"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."

McNulty and colleagues point out a positive gut-level attitude will trigger congruent cognitive processes, interfering with incongruent cognitive processes. As McNulty explains further, a person who possessed a positive gut-level attitude was very good at processing the positive words that flashed on the screen and therefore, bad at processing the negative words. The opposite process holds true for a person harboring a negative gut-level attitude as well.

The participants were subjected to both the explicit and implicit experiments only once, at the baseline. However, each couple was checked in on by one of the researchers every six months. During these follow ups, the couples were asked to report their satisfaction with the relationship. Those reporting the highest level of dissatisfaction with their marriage at the end of the four year study were, quite interestingly, the couples who subconsciously revealed either negative or lukewarm attitudes during the implicit experiment. The self-reported conscious attitude played little to no part in whether or not the couple was satisfied or not with the relationship.

"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."

Rounding out the research team and co-authoring the paper were Michael A. Olson and Matthew Shaffer of the University of Tennessee and Andrea L. Meltzer of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

The results of the study were published in this week’s edition of the journal Science.