Pay attention to your gut before saying “I do”

A new study out of Florida State University on using your gut when making the decision to get married was published online this week in the Journal Science. It found that newlyweds had unconscious positive or negative gut feelings about their partners that they were not consciously aware of. These feelings actually predicted the satisfaction and survival of their marriages several years later.

Essentially, the study used photos of the person’s spouse along with a series of positive and negative words. The photo was only shown for a couple of seconds, enough time to recognize the person- and then they were given a positive and negative word and had to push a button for only one of them. The design left no time to construct an answer- it was instant and knee-jerk, often referred to as a gut reaction. Remember the word association game where someone says a word and you immediately say the first thing that comes into your mind? It’s much like that except a picture is used.

135 heterosexual couples who had been married within the past 6 months participated. The couples also filled out a marital satisfaction survey- and these came out as very positive across the board regardless of what the other part of the experiment showed. They were asked to reevaluate their marriage for four years at six month intervals, using the same questionnaire. Over time, their responses on both the questionnaire and their reactions to photos came closer together and showed a more consistent response. Twelve of the couples divorced within the four years the study was conducted- and their responses supported this outcome.

What this boils down to is that many people ignore their feelings, brush them under the rug, push them aside in order to achieve the goal of marriage- and then over time find that they can’t hide from these feelings anymore. In my work with couples I encounter this too frequently- folks who had doubts but either ignored them or rationalized them. They usually write them off as the typical “cold feet” experience that can happen before taking such a major step. However, as we discuss their pre-marriage concerns it becomes clear that there were many red flags and signs that said STOP and THINK that they ignored.

It will be nice for therapists like me to actually have a study to back up what we have been trying to tell couples for years- if it doesn’t feel right, slow down and delay making that huge commitment.