Why your gut is right about your marriage

Before getting married, check in with your gut, suggests a new paper published in the journal Science.

By , Staff writer

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    A new paper published this week in Science reports that a soon-to-be bride or groom's gut feeling about his or her partner is a better predictor of future marital bliss than are conscious attitudes about the upcoming wedding.
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Predicting if a marriage will work out has long been considered a loser’s game. But new research suggests that newlywed couples do know, deep down in their guts, if their marriage will be a happy one.

A paper published this week in the journal Science reports that a person’s professed attitude toward his or her partner just after the wedding has little bearing how well the marriage will weather the coming years. No surprise there: once in love, not always in love. But the team also found that there is, in fact, a prescient indicator of future marital happiness: a person’s unconscious feelings about his or her romantic partner just after marriage, also known as that “gut feeling.”

“There is definite evidence that people’s guts can be quite right,” says Michael Olson, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a co-author on the paper.

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The new paper follows decades of tussles over just how reliable our “gut feelings” are in smart decision-making. On the whole, studies plumbing the gut’s trustworthiness have produced mixed results, leaving us with the uninformative maxim to trust your gut sometimes, other times not. But when it comes to marriage, there is less and less disagreement: the gut knows.

“For a lot of people, there are these warning signs early on that they ignore,” says Justin Lavner, a graduate student in clinical psychology at UCLA who was not involved in the research. He is also the co-author on a 2012 paper in the Journal of Family Psychology reporting that newlyweds who retrospectively acknowledged that they had had pre-wedding doubts about their partners were more likely than non-doubters to after four years be divorced or unhappily wed.

 “Couples have a lot of awareness about how things are going,” says Mr. Lavner, “and they should really pay attention.”

In the latest research, the team first assessed 135 newlywed couples’ conscious attitudes about their partners. To do so, the 270 individuals were asked to rate their relationships along a sliding scale of 15 pairs of opposite adjectives: to what extent was the relationship either “good” or “bad?” Was it more “satisfying” than “dissatisfying”?

Since these were newlyweds, the participants answered as expected: their relationships were, all things considered, positive, and they expected it to remain so, says Dr. Olson.

But those feelings turned out to be more complicated when the researchers investigated the couples’ unconscious thoughts, or gut feelings, about their new marriages. Each person was shown photos of his or her partner interspersed with positive and negative words. The research team then marked the time it took for the person to respond to prompts about how well that word described his or her partner. These reaction times were used as barometers of the newlywed’s “gut feelings” about the match. The participant’s response to photos of an attractive stranger was also assessed as a control.

For the vast majority of the participants, conscious feelings matched gut feelings, says Olson. But, for a minority, those feelings did not match at all, and some partners even showed more positive gut feelings for the total strangers than for their partner for life, he says.

Next, twice a year for the following four years, the couples filled out evaluations assessing their marital happiness. The team found that the conscious feelings that an individual reported just after the wedding had little relationship to how his or her attitude toward his or her spouse changed over time. But the results of the unconscious response test – those “gut feelings” – were telling.

Individuals who had unconsciously expressed doubts about their partner, even while professing enthusiasm for the relationship, became unhappier in the marriage over the next four years, seeing more and more problems in the match.

Meanwhile, individuals who had felt in their gut that their partner was someone with whom they would be happy tended to perceive fewer problems in their relationship and to experience less of a decrease in bliss over time. (Sadly, all of the participating couples waned in happiness over time, no matter what, says Olson.)

People who have gut-level positive feelings for their partners go on to wear proverbial “rose-colored glasses” in their marriage, the researchers suggest, making them less likely to see marital problems and thus more likely to remain happy together. Meanwhile, someone who started with doubts is liable to spot the marriage’s problems, despair over them, and sour the relationship.

But why are doubters walking down the aisle? Well, that’s an open question, but the researchers propose that engaged couples and newlyweds are under extreme social pressure to be nothing but unabashedly in love with their partners. So, fiancés with bad gut feelings convince themselves that they feel more positive feelings that they really do feel. Niggling doubts get squirreled away in the recess of their psyches.

“There are strong norms to really have these heart fluttering feelings about your spouse,” says Olson. “The folks who maybe don’t have that positive gut feeling are not willing to acknowledge it.”

Over time, though, the doubter’s negative feelings tend to rise from the gut-level to the consciousness, says Olson. That’s because the social pressure to be nothing but thrilled about the marriage subsides the longer people have been married: we expect newlyweds to be gloriously optimistic about their relationships, but we are much less surprised, or affronted, when a couple years out from their honeymoon acknowledges that they are not always sure about each other, he says.

“We’re not surprised when couples that have been together for decades don’t look longingly into each other’s eyes anymore,” he says. “People are more willing to admit it’s not perfect.”

It’s not well understood how aware, if at all, people are of their gut feelings. But the researchers say couples can become aware of suppressed feelings, if they’re willing to dig down deep.

“The available evidence suggests that people can become aware of their automatic attitudes if they allow themselves to attend to them,” says Jim McNulty, a professor at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the lead author on the paper.

“But they can also ignore them,” he says.

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