Gut reaction of marital partners could foretell their marriage satisfaction

Data for the study was gathered from 135 newlywed couples recruited within the first six months of marriage, completing measures of their attitudes

Unconscious gut reactions may predict happy, and not-so-happy, marriages, a new study suggests.

Results of research published Nov. 29 found that spouses’ implicit attitudes toward their partners predicted changes in their marital satisfaction over four years. The study was published in the scholarly journal Science, “Though they may be unaware, newlyweds implicitly know whether their marriage will be satisfying.”

Andrea Meltzer, SMU, marital satisfaction

Data for the study was gathered from 135 newlywed couples, who were recruited within the first six months of marriage and completed measures of implicit attitudes toward their partners and explicit attitudes toward their relationship.

Researchers flashed the faces of participants’ spouses and asked the newlyweds to quickly, and unconsciously, determine if words such as awesome or horrible were positive or negative.

Individuals who responded the quickest to positive words after seeing a picture of their spouse were happier over the 4-year-study period.

Conscious attitudes were not accurate predictors of happiness
Questionnaires asking about couples’ conscious attitudes were not accurate predictors of the happiness of the pairs, but people’s automatic responses could foretell the course of the couple’s relationship, the researchers found.

Andrea L. Meltzer, an assistant professor in the SMU Department of Psychology, is one of four co-authors on the study on newlywed marital satisfaction.

The study, one of the first to apply implicit attitudes to relationships, found that spouses’ implicit attitudes toward their partners predicted changes in their marital satisfaction over four years.

Spouse was exposed to partner’s image, then responded to positive, negative words
To measure their implicit attitudes, spouses were briefly exposed to an image of their partner and then asked to indicate as quickly as possible whether a word was either positive (e.g., “wonderful”) or negative (e.g., “horrible”). The difference between the time it took them to respond to the positive and negative words was an index of their implicit satisfaction. Spouses who responded quicker to the positive words and slower to the negative words indicated higher satisfaction with their partner.

To measure their explicit attitudes, couples reported the extent to which various adjectives described their marriage. Following this initial assessment, couples reported their marital satisfaction every six months for four years.

The study found that newlyweds’ automatic, implicit attitudes were an accurate indicator of changes in marital satisfaction across the first four years of marriage whereas their explicit attitudes were not an indicator of changes in marital satisfaction. Consistent with other studies of newlywed couples, this study found that marital satisfaction decreased over time.

Findings demonstrate implicit positive attitudes predict less decline in satisfaction
But the findings demonstrated that those partners with more positive implicit attitudes toward their spouse experienced less-steep declines in marital satisfaction across the four-year course of the study.

Notably, many factors predict marital satisfaction; this study covers just one component. Therefore, it likely would not be ideal to use implicit attitudes as a compatibility indicator or as a way to predict a long and happy marriage, the researchers cautioned. — SMU, Science

SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls nearly 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools. For more information see www.smu.edu.

SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews. To speak with an SMU expert or book an SMU guest in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650.

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