Newlywed bliss can overshadow serious marital problems, but a new study by UT researchers shows that signs of a failed marriage are often there from the beginning—if couples look closely.
The study, by Michael Olson, associate professor of psychology, and Jim McNulty of Florida State University, finds that spouses’ automatic attitudes, not their more thoughtfully held conscious attitudes, are a good predictor of marital satisfaction. It is the first study to look at the long-term implication of automatic attitudes—positive or negative thoughts, feelings, or actions that one might not be aware of having toward an object or person.
The findings are published in this week’s edition of Science.
The researchers and their team conducted a four-year study with 135 newlywed couples. To measure the couples’ conscious attitudes, they were asked to report their marital satisfaction and the severity of their specific relationship problems every six months.
To measure automatic attitudes, participants were shown pictures of their spouse and then asked to indicate whether words flashed on a computer screen were positive or negative. If the partner was quicker to identify a positive word such as “wonderful” and slower to identify a negative word such as “awful,” this indicated they had positive automatic feelings toward their spouse. If the partners were quicker to identify a negative word as negative and slower to identify a positive word as positive, this indicated they had negative automatic feelings toward their spouse.
“Participants underwent a large number of these trials to provide an estimate of their automatic attitudes toward their spouses,” said Olson. “Most participants showed positive automatic attitudes in response to their spouses, but some didn’t, and attitudes toward their spouses varied widely.”
The researchers found newlywed spouses’ automatic attitudes toward their partner assessed early in their marriage, rather than their conscious attitudes assessed at the same time, predicted changes in their marital satisfaction over four years.
“Our research shows that although the motivation to see the relationship in a positive light may distort a spouse’s conscious evaluations of their relationship, their automatic evaluations of the relationship appear to be relatively impervious to such motivations,” said Olson.
The researchers suggest their findings may indicate that ignorance can, in fact, be bliss. Spouses with more positive automatic attitudes were less likely to perceive undesirable changes in their relationships and thus more likely to maintain their initial levels of satisfaction over time.
“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,” said Olson.
The study was conducted in collaboration with Matt Shaffer, a graduate student at UT, and Andrea Meltzer, who received her doctorate from UT and is now a psychology faculty member at Southern Methodist University.
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