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Follow Your Gut: Newlyweds Know on Subconscious Level Whether Marriage will be Unhappy

SubconsciousnessHow does your subconsciousness evaluate your spouse?

Want to know your marriage will have a happy ending or unhappy one? After studied 135 heterosexual couples over a four-year period, Associate Professor of Psychology James K. McNulty and his co-workers found that the feelings the study participants verbalized about their marriages were not related to changes in their marital happiness over time. Instead, it was the gut-level negative evaluations of their spouses that they unknowingly revealed during a baseline experiment that predicted future happiness. The results have been published on recent Science.

The McNulty team’s results shows that people’s conscious attitudes, or how they said they felt, didn’t always reflect their gut-level or automatic feelings about their marriage. It was the gut-level feelings, instead of conscious ones, that actually predicted how happy they remained over time. However, newlyweds may have not noticed that. “Everyone wants a perfect marriage,” McNulty said, “And in the beginning, many people are able to convince themselves of that at a conscious level. However, the automatic, gut-level responses are less affected by what people want to think. You can’t force yourself to have a positive response through a lot of wishful thinking.”

The researchers conducted two experiments – the explicit experiment and the implicit experiment. In the explicit experiment, the researchers asked the 270 individuals to report their relationship satisfaction as well as the severity of their specific relationship problems. The researchers prepared 15 pairs of opposing adjectives such as “good” or “bad”, “satisfied” or “unsatisfied”, for the participants to provide their conscious evaluations to their marriage.

Most interesting to the researchers, though, were the findings from another measure, the implicit experiment, designed to assess their automatic attitudes, or gut-level responses.  This experiment included flashing a photo of the study participant’s spouse on a computer screen for one-third of a second followed by a positive word such as “awesome” or “terrific” or a negative word such as “awful” or “terrible”. The participants simply needed to press a key on the keyboard to indicate whether the word was positive or negative and their reaction time was recorded using a special software.

 “Generally, it is easy to distinguish positive and negative words, but flashing a picture of their partner makes people faster or slower relying on their automatic attitude toward the partner,” McNulty said. “People who have truly positive feelings about their spouses are very fast to indicate that words such as ‘awesome’ are positive ones and very slow to indicate that words like ‘awful’ are negative ones.” That is because positive gut-level attitudes facilitate congruent cognitive processes and interfere with incongruent cognitive processes. In another word, people with positive gut-level attitudes were good at processing positive words but poor at processing negative ones when those automatic attitudes were activated. Vice Versa. When a partner had negative feelings about their spouse that were activated by the brief exposure of the photo, they would have a harder time switching gears to process those positive words.

Both the explicit and implicit experiments were conducted only once, but the researchers checked back with the spouses every six months and asked them to report their relationship satisfaction. The researchers found from the baseline experiments that the respondents who unwittingly revealed negative or lukewarm attitudes during the implicit experiment reported the most marital dissatisfaction four years later. The conscious attitudes were irrelevant to changes in marital satisfaction.

The results suggests that although most couples are unwilling or can’t speak out of their real feelings toward their spouses, they actually can’t help evaluate their partner – which is able to predict the trend of marriage. “So, you may want to attend a little bit to your gut,” McNulty said. Although the experimental design is not perfect, but “if your gut is telling you that there is a problem, then you may benefit from exploring that, maybe even with a professional marriage counselor.”