Can Gut-Level Attitudes Predict Marital Success?

Dec 3, 2013


Ask a newlywed couple what they think about each other and chances are, they’ll present a rosy picture.  That’s not a surprise, since cultural norms suggest newlyweds should act as if they’re head-over-heels in love with each other.

But for some couples, it’s just that—an act.

Michael Olson of the University of Tennessee’s Department of Psychology set out to measure the differences between what newlyweds say about each other and how they actually feel.  With partners Jim McNulty of Florida State University, Andrea Meltzer of Southern Methodist University and UT graduate student Matt Shaffer, Olson put more than 135 newlywed couples through a series of tests that measure their automatic, gut-level responses to each other.  Then the researchers tracked the relational health of the couples’ nascent marriages.

After following each couple for four years, Olson’s team concluded those couples who registered negative gut-level attitudes early on had more marital problems than those whose gut-level responses were largely positive. 

Olson says marriage can be challenging even for those with positive attitudes about each other.  “Most people are happy on their wedding day,” he says.  “It’s a very exciting time.  But relational satisfaction in marriages declines over time.  Eventually the honeymoon is over and you have to navigate a life with the person.”

But those with negative gut-level attitudes about each other face an even greater challenge.  

“These gut-level automatic responses people have, whether it to be spouses, political attitudes, religious attitudes, food attitudes, these are pretty hard to change,” Olson says  “Once people have a gut feeling about something, they really kind of stick with it.”

That’s not to suggest those visceral attitudes can’t change.  But Olson says it takes some awareness, some work and some time.  “It’s not something that happens overnight,” he says.