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Should you tie the knot? Listen to your gut feeling, research suggests

What did your gut tell you about your future hubby, and did you listen?

New American research suggests "gut feelings" foretell the quality of a marriage far more accurately than the pleasant thoughts couples articulate out loud.

In a study titled "Though They May Be Unaware, Newlyweds Implicitly Know Whether Their Marriage Will Be Satisfying," published online Thursday in the journal Science, researchers tracked 135 heterosexual couples who had wed six months earlier. They followed them for four years, following up every six months.

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The researchers were looking to get at each spouse's gut-level feelings about their partner, or their "automatic attitude," which is the term psychologists use for a knee-jerk reaction that sometimes contradicts our more polite conscious thoughts.

Using a questionnaire, the researchers asked spouses six questions about how happy they were with their marriage on a scale from 1 ("very unhappy") to 10 ("perfectly happy"). They also asked them to describe their union using adjectives such as "good" and "satisfying." Both of these tests were intended to measure the couples' conscious attitudes toward their relationships.

In order to measure their gut feelings, the researchers showed each spouse a photograph of their partner or a random control person for 0.3 seconds, followed by an adjective such as "awesome," "delightful," "disgusting," "horrible" or "scary." (How awkward.) As fast as they could, the spouses were to press the button that indicated whether the word was negative or positive. People who hold "positive automatic attitudes" are fast to respond to positive words but slow to respond to negative words, according to prior research.

The study authors found these gut feelings predicted how people would feel four years later more accurately than their conscious attitudes let on. "Although the authors acknowledge that it is difficult to know whether people were truly unaware of their gut-level attitudes, or whether they were simply unwilling to report how they truly felt, the results suggest that automatic thoughts that often occur outside of our awareness can shape future outcomes," read the release.

"Although people may frequently ignore their gut feelings, there is some evidence that they can access them if they try," psychologist and study co-author James McNulty of Florida State University in Tallahassee said in an interview with the Globe.

Speaking with the Science Daily, he suggested couples attend to their gut,  "maybe even with a professional marriage counselor." Twelve of the couples divorced within the four years it took to conduct the study, he told the Washington Post's Meeri Kim.

Washington Post readers seemed familiar with the concept of romantic gut feelings – feelings that are akin to first impressions, only more informed. These readers also alluded to why many couples ignore gut feelings: a therapy culture that pushes couples to "make it work" through compromise. That and an optimism more blind than their guts.

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"Some people probably bury them precisely because those feelings are unhappy," McNulty told the Globe. "Most people want to believe they are in a happy relationship."

Follow me on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

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