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Can Intuition Predict Marital Success?

Choosing a romantic partner

"Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence. Second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience." Oscar Wilde

Intuitive implicit knowledge has been criticized for inappropriately overriding reliable intellectual knowledge. A recent study indicates the opposite: unsuccessful marriages are often the triumph of intelligence over more reliable intuitive knowledge. Listening to your unspoken heart, whether it expresses negative or positive intuitions, often leads you to a more satisfied marriage.

Predicting marital satisfaction by implicit intuitions

“Your heart knows not how to lie. It is great that it lays deep in your chest and not in your mouth.” Kak Sri

In a recent longitudinal study conducted by James McNulty and his colleagues (2013), 135 newlywed couples completed an explicit measure of their conscious attitudes toward their relationship and an implicit measure of their automatic attitudes toward their relationship. For the next 4 years, they reported on their marital satisfaction every 6 months. Spouses’ automatic attitudes, not their conscious ones, better predicted marital satisfaction.

The research indicates that the subconscious response to an image of a partner, which is a kind of gut feeling, is often more reliable than the conscious response. McNulty believes that their study is a better gauge of the true attitudes of newlyweds towards each other than what these couples say to other people or even admit to themselves. In this sense intuitive implicit responses are a powerful predictor of whether people will be happy in their marriage.

McNulty indicates that newlyweds are unable to accurately predict whether they will remain satisfied, in part because their strong motivations to perceive the relationship in a positive light can lead to biased evaluations of the relationship. McNulty further claims that although the motivation to see the relationship in a positive light may distort spouses’ explicit, conscious evaluations of their relationship, their implicit, automatic (intuitive) evaluations of the relationship appear to be relatively impervious to such motivations. The study shows that although people may be unwilling or unable to recognize any deep-seated discontent they have toward their partners, this discontent may nonetheless shape their relationship outcomes and is expressed in their automatic intuitive evaluations. These evaluations better predict the trajectory of their marital satisfaction. McNulty and his colleagues constructed a kind of "love test" that could reveal these intuitive evaluations. This "love test" is not always accurate; rather, it indicates general tendencies. The basic intuitions, although generally reliable, lack further information that can be acquired only by greater acquaintance with the partner. As in many other cases, the integration of intuitive knowledge with intellectual reasoning is advantageous.

Another example of the superiority of intuitive knowledge in predicting future marriage qualities comes from a study by Justin Lavner and his colleagues (2012) that investigated to what extent experiencing "cold feet" before marriage is a predictor of the outcome of the relationship. The study indicates that circumstances in which there is no doubt concerning the romantic choice are typically better than those where there are romantic doubts. Indeed, women with premarital doubts went on to divorce at rates that were approximately 2.5 times higher than women without premarital doubts and had less satisfied marital trajectories if they did remain married. Men had even more premarital doubts than women did, but their impact upon marital outcomes was less significant.

It should be noted that the phenomenon of having "cold feet" is also an intuitive automatic response that intellectual reasoning sometimes overrides so that the marriage takes place nevertheless. When this happens, the chance of divorce is considerably increased among women.

Another example of the importance of intuitive emotional knowledge for predicting marriage success is John Gottman's study (1998) indicating that facial expressions of contempt (recorded in a conversation between the couple) is one of the major predicators of divorce.

Choosing a romantic partner

"Anyone can be passionate, but it takes real lovers to be silly."Rose Franken

“Love is for fools wise enough to take a chance.” Unknown

The above study has several interesting implications, but the one I want to discuss here is the issue of choosing a romantic partner. This study, which indicates the higher cognitive value of the unspoken heart over that of the intellectual head, is incompatible with the common assumption that intense romantic love involves no small measure of foolishness. Romantic love, which is focused merely on the beloved, is often seen as incompatible with wisdom, which involves taking a broad perspective and it is commonly believed that when we are in love, we follow our outspoken heart while neglecting our unspoken intellectual head.

Consider the following two true cases. Elisabeth, an attractive, career-minded woman in her forties, met a married man of the same age. Being wise and sensible, she underwent many hesitations before deciding to pursue her initial attraction toward him. Elisabeth realized how different they were; he was a very shy, serious person and she was outspoken, assertive, with a great sense of humor. She considered that the greatest impediment to a potential relationship with him was that both of them were married; she had never considered leaving her husband and she believed he felt the same about his wife. Consequently, she thought that the chance of actually implementing their love was not high. She considered her attraction to him to be crazy and foolish. Although her intellectual reasoning advised her against pursuing her initial attraction, she nevertheless let her heart lead her, mainly because she felt an unexplainable intuitive trust toward him. Eventually, they developed a profound and loving relationship and they are now happily married.

An opposite case is that of Janet who does not think too deeply before following her heart. She gave up higher education and married a man whom others considered inferior to her. His main virtues were that he enabled her to escape domination at home and have her own space. When asked about the quality of her relationship to this man, she answered, "We love each other and that is what really matters." Janet was madly in love with her husband at the time of her marriage, but she got married for the wrong reasons: though he enabled her to escape from her unfavorable circumstances, he did not offer a positive alternative; he prevented bad circumstances, but did not offer her better ones. From the start, their relationship revolved around dining out, with alcohol being a major component of the evenings. By the time they were married, heavy drinking had become a normal part of their lives. Eventually, Janet left her husband.

Both women chose to follow their hearts, but while Elisabeth did so by consulting her wise intellectual head, Janet did so by completely ignoring her head. It is evident that although there is no golden rule concerning when to listen to our heart, some integration between the head and the heart is advisable.

Integrating the head and the heart

“What is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.” Ernest Hemingway

Intellectual reasoning and intuitive insights have cognitive advantages in different circumstances. There are various indications that giving priority to intuitive insight in matters of the heart is often valuable; however, the heart can also be wrong. McNulty notes that in some cases, implicit intuitive evaluation is not a better predictor of marital satisfaction than explicit (intellectual) evaluation. It is clear that both explicit and implicit attitudes, whether they are emotional or intellectual, should not be neglected and the two should be integrated, as this process is indicative of emotional intelligence.

Integrating the explicit and implicit attitudes is difficult as we need to invest greater effort in uncovering our implicit attitudes, which may oppose what we feel is good for us. This is true both when the implicit attitude is emotional and when it is intellectual.

Take, for example, love at first sight, which is an emotional intuitive attitude indicating a good likelihood that an intense loving relationship could develop. Searching for intellectual objections to love at first sight is not something people like to do. And even if they do so, they probably underestimate the weight of negative aspects and overestimate the weight of positive ones. Marrying as a result of love at first sight is an example of the triumph of emotional intuition over intellectual reasoning.

It is difficult to choose a partner while taking note of our implicit knowledge, but it is important that we do so, since implicit knowledge expresses information that is often not consciously available to the decision-maker. When choosing a romantic partner, it is always best to go with your heart, but to keep your mind's eyes wide open.


Gottman, J. (1998). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. London: Bloomsbury.

Lavner, J. A., Karney, B. R., Bradbury, T. N. (2012). Do cold feet warn of trouble ahead? Premarital uncertainty and four-year marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 26, 1012-1017.

McNulty, J. K., Olson, M. A., Meltzer, A. L., Shaffer, M. J. (2013). Though they may be unaware, newlyweds implicitly know whether their marriage will be satisfying, Science, 342, 1119-1120.

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