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Knowing the Fate of Your Marriage: It’s Automatic

If I say that this post is about “unconscious feelings toward romantic partners,” you’d probably think that I’m about to serve up a big plate of Freud with a side of some repressed memories. Rest assured, I’m not going to get all “dreams and cigars” on you, but new research, published in the journal Science1 suggests that our unconscious feelings about our partners might be the Magic 8-Ball when it comes to future marriage satisfaction. The media has characterized this research as “knowing in your gut” whether you marriage will succeed (see here for an example), but we assure you that your stomach has nothing to do with it. 

To start with, we have to distinguish between those conscious, “explicit” feelings you have about your partner, and those unconscious, “implicit” feelings that might arise automatically without any control or effort on your part. Previous studies have found that people aren’t particularly good at predicting if their relationships will be satisfying in the future.2 Basically, if you ask them how things are going in their relationships (i.e., their explicit feelings about their relationships), they may be blinded by their current overly-positive feelings about their relationship (read more about positive illusions here), thereby preventing them from seeing their relationships accurately.

That’s where implicit, automatic evaluations come into play. These are the thoughts and feelings you have about your relationship that you can’t knowingly control. They come to mind automatically when you encounter your partner and reflect feelings about the relationship that can’t be easily altered or misrepresented. Because implicit evaluations are harder for people to manipulate, such "unconscious" evaluations might be less subject to bias and therefore be more accurate predictors of future outcomes in the relationship. For example, in my own research, we’ve shown that it’s not just how committed people are to their relationships that predicts whether their relationships stay together (read more about commitment and breakup here), but also how fast people respond to those questions about their commitment that matters.3

In the new study published in Science,1 the research team tracked 135 newlywed couples for 4 years. At the beginning of the study, the newlyweds were asked questions about their relationships such as, “Is your relationship good/bad?” and “Are you satisfied/dissatisfied?” These questions are pretty straightforward and tap explicit feelings about relationships.

The researchers also assessed implicit, unconscious attitudes by measuring how quickly the newlyweds identified the valence of words (i.e., was the word positive or negative?) after seeing pictures of the partner. The idea here is that if you have automatic positive feelings towards your partner, you’ll be able to more quickly identity positive words, because seeing your partner makes positivity come to mind automatically. We’d say that positivity is “accessible” in this case. Those positive feelings won’t help identifying negative words because feeling positive doesn’t help you make faster judgments about negative words. For example, if you see a picture of a doctor, you’d respond more quickly to a picture of a nurse presented afterwards, but not to a picture of a flower (because flowers and doctors are unrelated). Likewise, if you had negative automatic feelings about your partner, you’d be quick at identifying negative words. Essentially, your response speed to positive and negative words after seeing a picture of your partner indicates the extent to which you unconsciously, or automatically, feel positively or negatively towards your partner.

Interestingly, participants’ automatic evaluations of their spouses were not associated with their explicit, stated attitudes toward their spouses. In other words, participants were unaware of their automatic, unconscious feelings about their spouses, or, perhaps, they were deliberately motivated to portray their relationship differently from how they actually felt.

The researchers then tracked the newlyweds’ relationship satisfaction for four years. It’s not surprising to learn that newlyweds’ satisfaction declined over time; that’s an unfortunate truth about marriage that lots of studies find. 

The key finding in this study was that people’s automatic, unconscious feelings about spouses at the start of the study predicted the amount of decline in relationship satisfaction across those four years. Those newlyweds with negative automatic evaluations of their husbands or wives became more dissatisfied as their marriages progressed, regardless of how happy they said they were. That’s right: explicit, conscious attitudes toward their relationships (e.g., saying that the relationship was good/bad) were not indicative of downward changes in satisfaction. Essentially, those explicit attitudes were not a sign of things to come in the relationship in the same way the automatic attitudes were. 

The authors note that “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.”1

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1McNulty, J. K., Olson, M. A., Meltzer, A. L., & Shaffer, M. J. (2013). Though they may be unaware, newlyweds implicitly know whether their marriage will be satisfying. Science, 342, 1119-1120. 

2Lavner, J. A., Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (2013). Newlyweds' optimistic forecasts of their marriage: For better or for worse? Journal of Family Psychology, 27, 531-540.

3Etcheverry, P. E., & Le, B. (2005). Thinking about commitment: Accessibility of commitment and prediction of relationship persistence, accommodation, and willingness to sacrifice. Personal Relationships, 12, 103-123.

Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV

Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.

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