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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. Continue reading