Science Study: On Marriage, Listen To That Little Voice In Your Head

(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

If you're thinking about getting married, you might want to listen to that little voice in the back of your head.

A new study in the journal Science of more than 100 newlyweds found that a couple's “gut” feelings about each other — feelings they couldn’t or wouldn’t verbalize — were good predictors of how happy their marriage would be four years later — better predictors than their conscious feelings. The title: "Though They May Be Unaware, Newlyweds Implicitly Know Whether Their Marriage Will Be Satisfying."

Of course, we all have gut feelings about our partners — and they tend to be positive or we wouldn't be partners. But this study looked at something very specific: attitudes that are at such a deep level that we may not be aware of them, but they turn up on a kind of test that experimental psychologists have been using for years, that measures reaction times down to the millisecond.

Here’s how the study worked: Say you’re a newlywed. You sit at a keyboard with your fingers on two special keys, one labeled "good" and one labeled "bad." And you’re told that when you see a good word — say, "awesome" — you should press the good key, and when you see a bad word — say, "awful" — press the bad key.

'Because we want so much for it to work out, we will deny those little signals.'

After a few minutes of that, you start seeing photos of your new spouse very briefly, for just 300 milliseconds, before you see the good or bad word. The idea is that the photo of your spouse is activating your automatic attitude, and if your attitude is super-positive, then you’ll be able to press the “good” key when you see the word “awesome” even faster — but you'll respond to the bad word, "awful," more slowly. The study found that differences of much less than a second in those reaction times were good predictors of marital satisfaction four years later.

Of course, most newlyweds are pretty crazy about each other, consciously and unconsciously. But the question is whether their love can persist once they start facing the many challenges that real-life relationships throw at them.

The lead researcher on this study, Jim McNulty, a psychology professor at Florida State University, has a theory that these deep unconscious attitudes, if they’re highly positive, can keep couples from getting as bogged down in the negative changes that inevitably come.

And he says he now he wants to work on bolstering these deep positive emotions in order to help relationships.

"The question is, can you strengthen somebody’s automatic attitude toward their partner?" he said. "We’re interested in moving in that direction to see, because I think that kind of experimental evidence would show these automatic attitudes are really having a causal influence, and then they would also provide a potential therapeutic intervention."

For the meanwhile, can couples contemplating marriage get hold of a test for their automatic attitudes as a precautionary measure before taking the leap?

In a word, no. Other such reaction-time tests — to measure unconscious bias and racism, for example — have been available on the Internet for years. But Jim McNulty says that it's much too early to try to use the newlywed test at an individual level. It has too many flaws as a predictor, and could be too misleading.

I asked him what he does hope people take away from his results, and he advises — forgive the cliche but — get in touch with your feelings.

"There’s some evidence that people can access their automatic feelings, their immediate gut-level reactions," he said. "And so if people do that and they feel that there are some doubts, I think probably the best thing to do would be to go talk to a professional, because it’s not certain that a person with doubts is going to be unhappy."

Reasonable guidance, but for a reality check, I contacted the Gottman Institute, which offers "science-based support for couples and the professionals who help them."

Dr. Julie Schwartz-Gottman, its president and co-founder, agrees with the study's suggestion to trust your gut.

"A lot of times, the problems that we have in relationships are there right from the beginning," she said. "But because we want so much for it to work out, we will deny those little signals we're getting that something isn’t right, just push them back to the side and just focus on the positive, and that gets us in trouble."

But how, I asked, can we tell the difference between garden-variety wedding-day jitters and a serious signal of impending badness?

"I think repetition is one of the answers," she said. "For example, if you're getting the same signal with a particular behavior over and over again, and you find yourself with that little voice inside you getting angrier and angrier or more and more upset, so it becomes harder and harder to push away the signal, that's a bad sign. As opposed to something that blips on the screen and disappears. So watch out for repeated patterns of something that really annoys you — for example, if your partner tends to be critical, and you keep thinking, 'Oh, yes, I can improve,' but that criticism is really getting under your skin."

And the key to long-term marital satisfaction, Dr. Gottman says, seems to lie less in some initial positive attitude — after all, aren't most newlyweds madly in love? — and more in the process of a marriage proving itself.

"Every time we go into a committed relationship, the one question we're asking each other is, 'Will you be there for me?'" she said. "And in order to have that really deep positive attitude, one has to have experienced the partner being there for them in very significant ways, over and over again. It doesn't mean the person won’t mess up at a particular time, it doesn’t mean that our partner won't even hurt us, won't do something pretty awful. But bottom line is that if a partner is not there for us over and over and over again, it’s impossible to sustain that deep positive feeling. So it really does take work, it takes building. Nobody comes to a relationship with a permanently positive smile fixed on their face."

Readers, which rings more true to you, the "Science" findings on initial attitudes or Dr. Gottman's description of marriage as a process? What is your experience?

A bit on the Science study's nuts and bolts, from the press release:

Jim McNulty and colleagues followed 135 couples for 4 years, measuring partner satisfaction with a paper/pencil questionnaire that asked spouses to answer 6 questions about how happy they are with the marriage on a scale from 1 (very unhappy) to 10 (perfectly happy). They also asked participants to evaluate their relationship according to a bunch of adjectives like “good” and “satisfying.” These two evaluations were designed to measure couples’ conscious attitudes toward their relationships.

In order to assess participants’ gut-level feelings, what psychologists call a person’s “automatic attitude,” the researchers evaluated reaction times to positive and negative words after brief exposures to photographs of one’s spouse. Research shows that people harboring positive automatic attitudes are fast to respond to positive words and slow to respond to negative words. McNulty and colleagues asked newlyweds to indicate as quickly as possible whether words like “awesome” and “horrible,” were in fact positive or negative after seeing pictures of their spouse (or random control individuals) for 300 milliseconds. The time it took each to respond offered a way to measure automatic attitudes. The researchers found that these automatic attitudes could better predict long-term marriage happiness than conscious attitudes. For example, people who responded more quickly to positive words after seeing a 300 millisecond prime of their partner remained more happy over four years compared to people who took longer to respond to positive words after seeing the picture of their partner. In contrast, couples’ conscious attitudes — the responses participants willingly reported — did not accurately predict how happy couples remained over time. Although the authors acknowledge that it is difficult to know whether people were truly unaware of their gut-level attitudes, or whether they were simply unwilling to report how they truly felt, the results suggest that automatic thoughts that often occur outside of our awareness can shape future outcomes.

Listen to a Here & Now interview on the new study here.

This program aired on November 29, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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