One Test Can Show Whether Your Relationship Will Last

... and why your unconscious already knows if you'll make it.

Posted Mar 16, 2016

Kzenon/Shutterstock
Source: Kzenon/Shutterstock

A new study has concluded that high standards for a romantic relationship lead to more happiness over the years—if you can meet them. While this may sound obvious, the research confirms advice you'll often hear from couples counselors: Address your problems directly rather than going sarcastic or drifting off.  

The participants in this research were 135 newlyweds in Tennessee, mostly white and in their mid-20s, with an average combined annual income of less than $40,000. At the start of the study, and then every six months for the next four years, the couples answered questions about their relationship satisfaction and hopes. They also held two recorded 10-minute discussions about their top problem as a couple.

James McNulty of Florida State University listened to all the talk and concluded that couples who directly addressed problems tended to have happier relationships, even if they more often sounded angry with each other. On the other hand, people who were indirect about their problems, avoided issues, or were insulting or sarcastic tended to be less satisfied over time.

“If I say ‘Look, I’m very upset and here’s why'—that’s different from ‘You’re being ridiculous’ or ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,'” McNulty said when presenting his research at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology earlier this year.

McNulty's research has also led to the conclusion that insecure people feel better in relationships with more sex and that women don't mind being valued for their sexual attractiveness if their partner is committed. Also, marriages are happier when the wife is thinner than the husband.

We often hear that you have to love yourself—or at least think kindly of yourself—to have a successful relationship with someone else. Using data from the same set of couples, McNulty found that feeling good about yourself does seem to be tied to positive evaluations of you by your partner, but also that you may have a more positive self-assessment unconsciously than consciously. He tested his subjects by showing them photos of themselves (mixed in with other photos for distraction) and then flashing words at them. Their job was to declare a word "positive" or "negative." The faster you judged a word positive after seeing a photo of yourself determined how positive you were about yourself unconsciously. (Researchers call this an "associative priming task.")

Most surprising: McNulty found that newlywed couples' unconscious assessments of whether they'd be happy over time turned out to be accurate—but their conscious evaluations did not. Again, the participants indicated as quickly as possible whether a word was positive or negative after looking at photographs of their partners mixed in with distracting photos. (These results make one think that couples should take some of these tests before they get a marriage license.)

The big question is whether, before you commit, you can figure out what your unconscious assessments are—and your partner's. If this test could do it, why not?