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See Inside November / December 2010

Telltale Heart: Word Association Test Reveals If Love Will Last

A test of hidden attitudes predicts relationship decay

Sometimes it’s easy to tell when a romantic relationship is about to take a dive. It doesn’t bode well if you would rather sort socks than go out on a date or if neither of you can think of much to say. Another bad sign is when—consciously or not—you associate your lover with words like “death” and “attacking.”

In a recent study using a word-association task, psychologists at the University of Rochester asked 222 men and women—all of them married, engaged or in committed relationships—to do some computerized word-sorting. As quickly as they could, participants paired their romantic partners’ names and distinctive characteristics with either positive words such as “peace” and “caring” or negative words such as “nagging” and “criticizing.”

The task is designed to tap into people’s “implicit” feelings—attitudes they may be unable or unwilling to explicitly acknowledge. Results showed that the more often individuals flubbed their responses to pairings of partner-related words with positive words, the more likely they were to have broken up a year later—even when variables such as relationship satisfaction and conflict were taken into ac­count. Across two experiments using slightly different kinds of words, participants who performed both below average on positive partner pairings and above average on negative partner pairings had a 70 to 75 percent likelihood of breaking up within a year, compared with only 11 to 14 percent of other participants.

These results suggest that implicit negative attitudes toward a romantic partner may reflect early misgivings and gripes that are either too subtle to con­sciously recognize or too distressing to admit­­­—but you can’t ignore your sub­conscious forever.

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