marital satisfaction

Could you predict your marital satisfaction? The short answer is: Yes if you just paid attention. Attention to what? Read on.

A group of psychologists studied something that surprisingly hasn’t been studied before: can marital satisfaction over a relatively long term be predicted? The results of this research have recently been published ( Though They May Be Unaware, Newlyweds Implicitly Know Whether Their Marriage Will Be Satisfying) and they throw a harsh light on our predictive powers and decision making.

Consider this: one can safely assume that close to 100% of newlywed were optimistic about the prospect of their marriage on their wedding day, but about half of them would end up in divorce over the years. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know that a large number of couples who stayed married are not satisfied with their marriage, albeit not enough to propel them to divorce.

Add the two groups together and you’d conclude that our predictive power is worse than random! Such an observation is commonplace when it comes to the track records of futurists, financial prognosticators and political pundits. But these people don’t have “skin in the game”; none of their pronouncements had anything to do with their personal lives. Marriage, on the other hand, is highly personal and is probably the most important decision in life. So why this abysmal performance?


How we make decisions

The bane of my educational years was taking exams. My problem was that in ambiguous situations, I didn’t trust my intuition. I would go over the answers, think and over-think, and in many cases change the answer – and almost invariably be wrong doing it.

The process of decision making is an interplay between two psychological systems. One is an unconscious, automatic, implicit process. You have a “gut feeling” that something is wrong, he is a slob, she is self-centered. But the conscious, explicit system suppresses such vague misgivings -because you are in love, or because you think you carefully analyzed all the pros and cons, and besides – all those problems work themselves out with time, don’t they? Conversely, one would predict that spouses with more positive automatic attitudes toward their partner would demonstrate less substantial declines in their marital satisfaction because they would perceive fewer undesirable changes in the marriage.


The study

Modern psychology does not contend itself with stating “facts” that intuitively sound obvious; assumptions need to be verified, ideally by quantification. Fortunately, the implicit and explicit processes can be quantified by validated tests. To examine the extent to which spouses’ initial automatic attitudes toward their partner predicted the trajectory of their marital satisfaction, they recruited 135 newlywed couples in eastern Tennessee as participants in a 4-year longitudinal study.

At baseline (June 2006 to October 2007), and every 6 months for the next 4 years, both members of these couples reported their relationship satisfaction and the severity of their specific relationship problems. Also at baseline, spouses completed an explicit measure of their conscious attitudes toward the relationship and an implicit measure of their automatic attitudes toward their partner.

The database generated by these tests was subjected to several analyses. For instance, no correlation was found between spouses’ automatic and conscious attitudes, which suggests that spouses were unaware of their automatic attitudes. Further, spouses’ automatic attitudes, not their conscious ones, predicted changes in their marital satisfaction, such that spouses with negative automatic attitudes developed marital problems over time, and spouses more positive automatic attitudes were less likely to experience declines in marital satisfaction over time.

The authors conclude:

“In sum, 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”.

To which I would add a piece of advice: be in touch with your feelings, don’t suppress or deny them. And trust your intuition.

Old hippies, in rainbow colors
Old hippies, in rainbow colors


Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


  1. Hey Dov. Well this certainly clears up the factors in my colorful relationship history – its all in my autonomic nervous system. That’s the Achilles Heel. if only I would have know this 50 years ago I could have avoided a lot of pain and suffering. Now where do all the impulses from the autonomic nervous system originate? It seems that would be the origin of our success or failure in a long term relationship.


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