Trusting your gut may be the key to avoiding a divorce. A new study in the journal Science shows that gut feelings can forecast whether a newlywed couple will remain happy. In contrast, outward displays or exclamations of affection were a poor predictor of ultimate marital bliss.

"Everyone wants to be in a good marriage. And in the beginning, many people are able to convince themselves of that at a conscious level,” said psychologist and lead author James McNulty of Florida State University. “But these automatic, gut-level responses are less influenced by what people want to think. You can't make yourself have a positive response through a lot of wishful thinking."

Despite marriage being woven into the fabric of society since the dawn of modern civilization, people remain somewhat clueless when it comes to picking a partner “to have and to hold until death do thee part.” The divorce rate for first marriages has floated around 40-50 percent for the last 20 years. There are some indications that the divorce rate is dropping, but those trends may be due to a greater reluctance toward getting married in the first place.

While a number of factors determine marital success, the initial attitude that a newlywed carries toward their spouse is one of the biggest. This makes sense. If you don’t like a person in the beginning, why would you stick with them?

Yet what Dr. McNulty’s study shows is that even when a newlywed couple says they are happy, they may not be. He and his colleagues found that a person’s unconscious gut feelings going into a marriage determine whether he or she will be satisfied.

McNulty’s team uncovered this by recruiting 135 heterosexual newlywed couples during the first six months of their marriage and surveying their level of marital satisfaction over the course of the next four years.

But at the very beginning of the experiment, the researchers had each spouse take a special exam that measured their automatic attitudes—gut feelings—toward their 'beloved'. A picture of the spouse was quickly flashed on a computer screen, and this image was followed by either a positive or negative word, like “awesome” or “awful”.

Each participant then merely had to press a key on the keyboard to identify whether the word was positive or negative.

Prior research had shown that spouses who think of their partners as “awesome” will spend less time thinking about the choice and quickly press the positive button. In contrast, people who disagree with the idea that their partner “is awesome” will take more time to decide. In other words, a delay in reaction time suggests that they do not like their partner on a subconscious level.

"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," McNulty said.

His team found that newlyweds implicitly know whether their marriage will be satisfying, based on this simple reflex test.

The couples that were most content at the end of the study had positive gut feelings from the very beginning. In contrast, expressing one’s happiness with a spouse, as measured by surveys, did a poor job of predicting satisfaction in the long-run.

"I think the findings suggest that people may want to attend a little bit to their gut," McNulty said. "If they can sense that their gut is telling them that there is a problem, then they might benefit from exploring that, maybe even with a professional marriage counselor.

And the implications extend beyond the realm of marriage. Gut feelings toward another person (or race, religion, or ethnicity) could serve as the basis for discrimination.

"Any strong automatic thought or feeling that we might have could predict our behaviors," McNulty told the AAAS Science podcast. "If people have strong negative automatic attitudes towards other groups for example, there is research suggesting they might be more likely to discriminate against those groups, even if they're unwilling to report those attitudes at a conscious level."

Source: McNulty JK, Olson MA, Meltzer AL, Shaffer MJ. Though They May Be Unaware, Newlyweds Implicitly Know Whether Their Marriage Will Be Satisfying. Science. 2013