For their study, Florida State University associate professor James K. McNulty and his colleagues studied 135 heterosexual couples who had been married for less than six months and then followed up with them every six months for four years.
What they found is that the feelings the brides and grooms spoke of about their marriage were not associated with their marital happiness. Instead, it was the gut-level negative evaluations of their partners that they unknowingly revealed during a baseline experiment that predicted future happiness, according to the researchers.
“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 wrote in a paper published in the journal Science.
The researchers found that people’s conscious attitudes — or how they said they felt — did not always reflect their gut-level feelings about their marriage. And it is those gut-level feelings, not their conscious ones, that actually predicted how happy they 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.”
For their experiment, the researchers asked each individual to report their relationship satisfaction and the severity of their specific relationship problems. The participants also were asked to provide their conscious evaluations by describing their marriage according to 15 pairs of opposing adjectives, such as “good” or “bad,” “satisfied” or “unsatisfied.”
Most interesting to the researchers, though, were the findings regarding another measure designed to test their automatic attitudes, or gut-level responses.
This experiment involved flashing a photo of the study 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 individuals simply 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.”
That’s because people with positive gut-level attitudes were really good at processing positive words but bad at processing negative words when those automatic attitudes were activated, he explained.
The opposite was also true. When a spouse had negative feelings about their partner that were activated by the brief exposure to the photo, they had a harder time switching gears to process the positive words.
The explicit and implicit experiments were performed only once, at the baseline, but the researchers checked in with the couples every six months and asked them to report relationship satisfaction.
They found that the people who unwittingly revealed negative or lukewarm attitudes during the implicit measure reported the most marital dissatisfaction four years later. The conscious attitudes were unrelated to changes in marital satisfaction.
“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.”
Source: Florida State University