The Holiday season has come and gone, but many people made a big decision over the past couple weeks: they got engaged. The couple, presumably, is happy. The respective families, again, presumably, are happy to have a new addition to their family. The DeBeers cartel is happy and laughing all the way to the bank.
But we know that if historical trends hold, 4 or 5 out of 10 of these engaged couples will eventually get divorced. Is there any way to tell if you or the happy couple you know is destined for failure? According to some new research, yes, and the short answer is to trust your gut.
For the skeptical, let's flesh that out. The prestigious research journal Science has published a study that followed 135 heterosexual couples over the course of four years. About six months into the marriage, the couples were flashed "a photo of the study participant's spouse on a computer screen for just one-third of a second followed by a positive word like 'awesome' or 'terrific' or a negative word like 'awful' or 'terrible.' The individuals simply had to press a key on the keyboard to indicate whether the word was positive or negative."
You can tell where this is going. One of the researchers said, "People who have really positive feelings about their partners are very quick to indicate that words like 'awesome' are positive words and very slow to indicate that words like 'awful' are negative words." And, of course, those who were more likely to express negative feelings were also more likely to express dissatisfaction with their spouse four years into the marriage.
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But of course (!), you might say. Did we really need a study to "prove" what anyone with commonsense already knows? However, that is one of the central insights of this study -- and the commonsense advice: we rather clearly do not listen to our gut enough. If we all did, then we would not have such a high divorce rate. (I will readily admit that the study is automatically flawed because it does not take into account those who "listened to their gut" before they got married; but this is a quibble, not a devastating criticism).
The problem is cognitive dissonance -- the ability to rationalize away things both about ourselves and our loved ones. Newly engaged couples feel pressure to be happy, the same is probably true to an even greater degree of newlyweds. When there is social pressure to say "things are going great," cognitive dissonance kicks in and does the mental accounting for us.
So before saying "yes" or "I do," listen to your gut. It won't lie to you.