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Gut Feelings Predict Marital Happiness

Update Date: Nov 29, 2013 09:44 AM EST

Newlyweds should follow their gut down the aisle. New research reveals that couples know deep down whether their marriage will result in happiness or sadness.

Researcher James K. McNulty of Florida State University and his team looked at 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.

While feelings participants verbalized about their marriages were unrelated to changes in their marital happiness over time, the findings revealed that couple's gut gut-level negative evaluations of their partners predicted future happiness.

"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," researchers wrote in the study.

"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."

Researchers said the latest findings revealed that people's conscious attitudes, or how they said they felt, did not always reflect their gut-level or automatic feelings about their marriage. It also showed that gut-feelings, and not conscious feelings, actually predicted marital happiness.

In the study, researchers had participants report their relationship satisfaction and the severity of their specific relationship problems.  Participants provided their conscious evaluations by describing their marriage according to 15 pairs of opposing adjectives, such as "good" or "bad," "satisfied" or "unsatisfied."

To gauge participants' unconscious feelings, researchers had participants look a t a series of photographs which involved flashing a picture of the participant's spouse on a computer screen for just one-third of a second followed by a positive word like "awesome" or "terrific" or a negative word like "awful" or "terrible." The participants then 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."

Researchers explained that people with positive gut feelings were really good at processing positive words but bad at processing negative words. They noted that the opposite was also true.

Researchers found that participants who unwittingly revealed negative or lukewarm attitudes during the implicit measure reported the most marital dissatisfaction four years later.

"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."

The findings are published in the journal Science

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