A new test can predict whether or not a relationship will last, researchers say.
The test uses a word association task often employed to assess racism and bias to reveal what partners really think about each other, even if they don't realize it.
Most previous research on relationship success has focused on directly asking couples how they feel about one another.
"But the difficulty with that is, that assumes that they know themselves how happy they are, and that's not always the case," said study researcher Ronald D. Rogge, of the University of Rochester. "To make things worse, a lot of people don't want to tell you if they're starting to feel less happy in their relationship."
The new study involved 222 volunteers, all in romantic relationships at the time of the study. Each volunteer supplied their partner's first name and two other words that related to the partner, like a pet name or a distinctive characteristic.
They then watched a monitor as three types of words were presented one at a time — good words (like peace, vacation or sharing), bad words (such as death, tragedy and criticizing), and partner-related words (names or traits).
There were two different kinds of tests: one in which the volunteer was supposed to press the space bar whenever he or she saw either good words or partner-related words, and one where the combination was bad words and partner words. The idea is to get at people's automatic reactions to the words — if they have generally good associations with their partners, they should be able to do the first task more easily than the second.
The results showed that volunteers who found it easy to associate their partner with bad things and difficult to associate the partner with good things were more likely to separate over the next year.
The test also did a better job of predicting a breakup than did an initial survey in which the researchers asked participants to report on the strength of their relationships before the study began.
"It really is giving us a unique glimpse into how people were feeling about their partners — giving us information that they were unable or unwilling to report," Rogge said.
The research was published online May 11 in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
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