People often have thoughts about their partners that they can’t put into words, but that affect the way they feel about their partners and the relationship. Try this thought experiment out on yourself: Imagine that your partner is next to you now. What’s your first, gut, reaction?
That gut reaction may, according to the newest relationship science research, have a surprising impact on how you perceive the quality of your relationship. According to Jordan Turner and James McNulty of Florida State University (2020), people tend to make these snap judgments about their partners in ways that are more positively skewed than their partner’s own self-perceptions. Considering that people in general tend to evaluate themselves more positively than the “average” person, this is an impressive finding indeed.
Turner and McNulty go on to note that, based on prior research, these spontaneous, or automatic, attitudes toward your partner “reflect the extent of ongoing pleasant and unpleasant experiences with the partner. For example, people who have a more positive instantaneous attitude toward their partners have fewer arguments. Over the long term, in the words of the authors, such instantaneous judgments have “predicted changes in relationship satisfaction over the first four years of marriage better than did self-report relationship evaluations” (p. 1037).
Although automatic thoughts might be, by definition, unconscious, Turner and McNulty propose that they can become the basis for judgments for which you have conscious awareness. These implicit attitudes become translated, for example, into the thought “I am happy with my partner.” On the other hand, with a negative association toward your partner underlying your conscious judgment, the outcome won’t be so rosy.
Adding complexity to the equation, you interact with your partner in settings that include implicit associations to other people and events. If you hate doing laundry, and have a set of negative associations to this common task, an interaction involving your partner and laundry could have competing effects on your satisfaction at the moment.
It’s possible, though, that the longer you share these experiences with your partner, the better you are able to separate out these judgments. You may still hate doing laundry 6 years into your relationship, but you won’t attribute your bad mood to anything your partner is doing. Consequently, Turner and McNulty built length of relationship into the equation in their study of couples.
Turning now to the actual study itself, the FSU researchers used a diary approach, a common method to assess people’s moods, events, and relationship satisfaction in the actual context of their daily lives. Their sample of 216 individuals (108 couples) included newlyweds (one of whom was a same-sex couple) averaging 30 years old.
The research team obtained their initial measure of unconscious attitudes toward the partner in the lab using a standard computerized task in which participants responded to prime words intended to draw out positive and negative associations. Essentially, this task is based on the assumption that people with positive associations toward their partner should react more quickly to “good” words about their partners than to “bad” words.
For the diary part of the study, participants rated their daily positive mood (e.g. “happy,” “excited”), and negative mood (“depressed,” “upset”). Each day, participants also rated their level of satisfaction with their partner, relationship, and marriage.
Although the partners were newlyweds, they varied from 2 to 206 months in their length of relationship prior to marriage, allowing the researchers to take this factor into account. Additionally, Turner and McNulty controlled for individual differences in depressive symptoms, neuroticism, and attachment insecurity (avoidance and anxiety).
After comparing possible statistical models to evaluate the implicit attitude-satisfaction link, the authors found that the length of the relationship actually did have an important role. In general, people did experience their automatic thoughts toward their partner as a “mood” in their daily interactions. For those in longer relationships, though, this mood was more likely to be attributed to an effect of the partner rather than to other features of their daily life, a finding you can understand if you return to that example of the laundry.
In the words of the authors, “as time goes on within a relationship, evaluations seem to become colored by both automatic partner attitudes and the moods that are associated with them” (p. 1042). Your mood, then, becomes easier to unpack the more “evidence” you have from your daily interactions. To put it slightly differently, as you get to know your partner longer, you can distinguish whether you’re mad at your partner or mad at life.
Putting these findings into practical terms, the FSU authors go on to suggest that perhaps it is best to listen to your gut after all when you’re in the formative stage of a relationship. However, if the relationship has already become established, and you want to remain in that relationship, you may have to do a bit of associational reprogramming.
Learning to minimize your automatic tendency to blame your partner for your bad mood, and hence dissatisfaction, might involve steps as simple as avoiding physical proximity or interactions with your partner when you’re feeling “temporarily down or grumpy” (p. 1043). Instead, let yourself calm down and seek your partner out when you’ve worked your way out of that bad mood. Maybe you need, building on this suggestion, to relearn to associate your partner with happy times and happy surroundings.
To sum up, although your negative automatic thoughts and feelings may arise spontaneously with respect to your partner, it’s possible for you to gain control over them. Making deliberate efforts to gain this conscious control can, over time, help you see your relationship, if not your own happiness, in a more favorable light.