If you are in the midst of planning the perfect wedding to the partner of your dreams and you suddenly get a bad feeling in your gut, new research on newlyweds suggests you would be wise to heed that instinct.
"The conscious attitude doesn't really predict what happens to the relationship over time," said study author Jim McNulty, a professor of psychology at Florida State University.
Rather, it was what McNulty called "semi-conscious" attitudes -- those gut feelings that many chose to ignore -- that determined how happy couples were years after they had exchanged their vows.
The finding is published in the journal Science.
How the study was done
McNulty and his team followed 135 newlywed couples for four years. Every six months, the researchers measured the couples' conscious attitudes toward their relationship, asking them to evaluate their marriage by using adjectives such as "good," "satisfying," "bad" or "dissatisfied."
They also measured what psychologists call "automatic attitude." To do this, McNulty said, the men and women sat in front of a computer. On the screen flashed either a positive or a negative word, such as "awesome" or "awful." They hit one key to denote it was a positive word and another key for negative.
"Right before they saw the word, we would flash a picture of their partner for a third of a second," McNulty said. "When people see a picture of their partner, it activates that automatic attitude." Someone who's positive toward their partner, he said, will be quicker to hit the positive key and slower to hit the negative key.
The technique has been validated in previous research on prejudice and stereotyping, he noted.
"These automatic, gut-level, immediate reactions might be unrelated to what they consciously think when they evaluated their partners," McNulty said.
In following the couples, however, the semi-conscious attitudes predicted long-term happiness.
What the study found
Overall, those who took longer to respond to positive words after seeing their partner's photo were less happy after four years than those who responded more quickly to positive words.
Why might that be? If the relationship has problems, the person is probably going to be less positive in their gut reactions, McNulty said. If their gut is warning them about problems, he said, it is important to address them before they affect the conscious attitude toward the relationship.
It's not as simple as having couples take a test before making a big commitment, McNulty said. He said the gut feelings tend to be telling on a group level, but not true in every case. "Some had a lukewarm automatic attitude, but remained happy," he said.
Currently, there's not a good diagnostic test that people can take to figure out their gut feelings toward their partner, he said.
"[However], people should try to trust their gut," McNulty said. "I'm not saying that if people have ambivalence, [they shouldn't] get married. At that point, it makes sense to talk to a therapist." The negative gut feelings may be pointing to problems that can be worked out, he said.
'Always trust your gut'
Danielle Adinolfi, a marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia, said this research backed up what therapists already knew. "Your gut feeling is a survival instinct -- it's something we are born with," she said. "If you are getting a gut feeling, that is to be trusted."
In her clinical experience, Adinolfi said, she has often had couples who split up tell her they somehow knew it wouldn't work out.
Gut feelings about a relationship need to be talked about immediately to try to solve the issues, she said. "Most people do realize they have them," she said. "But many people ignore them or make excuses for them."
A therapist who specialises in couples counseling could assess these gut feelings or unconscious attitudes about a relationship, she said.
To learn more about a healthy marriage, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.