Newlyweds’ gut feelings predict marriage satisfaction

Newlyweds know in their hearts whether their march down the aisle will result in marital bliss or an unhappy marriage, a new study has found.

Researchers have discovered that newlyweds' gut feelings about their partner, rather than their conscious feelings, are a greater indicator of marriage satisfaction years later.

The study, published in the journal Science, looked at 135 heterosexual couples who had been married for less than six months and followed-up with them every six months over a four-year period. Participants were quizzed about their relationship satisfaction and severity of any marital problems.

"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 researchers write.

James McNulty from Florida State University and his team developed a test believed to reveal newlyweds' unconscious attitudes about their spouse, rather than what they tell other people or admit to themselves.

The test involved flashing a photo of their 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 participant then had to hit a key indicating whether the word was positive or negative.

The researchers claim the speed with which the participant answered was an indication of their real, unconscious feelings.

"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," says McNulty.

The reverse was true for people with negative feelings about their significant others.

The researchers found that the couples' gut feelings predicted how happy they remained over time, whereas their conscious feelings had no bearing. Those who had negative gut reactions reported the most marital dissatisfaction four years later.

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

Almost all the newlyweds consciously rated their partner positively, which researchers expected.

"I think the findings suggest that people may want to attend a little bit to their gut," McNulty adds.