Dear Researcher,

I need help!! My best friend Rachel is about to get married to her on-again, off-again boyfriend of many years, Barry. Rachel has expressed doubts about getting married, but claims Barry has no doubts at all, so she is optimistic that her relationship will improve and is planning to go ahead with her marriage. My gut tells me that she should call off the wedding. Should I tell her?

Sincerely,

Concerned

So your friend has cold feet? Don’t run to get her these socks!

 

Dear Concerned,

Unfortunately, research on relationships suggests that your gut might be right. Although many people think doubts about getting married are common and therefore harmless, research suggests that premarital doubts should not be ignored. Lavner, Karney, and Bradbury (2012) conducted a longitudinal study where they interviewed and surveyed 232 recently-married couples for four years. They found that couples in which the wife had premarital doubts were significantly more likely to get divorced within five years of getting married, compared to couples without any doubts, or couples in which only the husband had doubts (Lavner et al., 2012). These findings suggest that although Barry may be confident in their decision to marry, the fact that Rachel has doubts makes it more likely that they may get divorced soon. Moreover, Lavner and colleagues (2012) also found that couples with premarital doubts began their marriage significantly less satisfied and maintained lower levels of satisfaction than their undoubting counterparts. So even if Rachel and Barry don’t get divorced, research suggests that they will likely experience decreased satisfaction in their marriage.   

The on-again, off-again nature of Rachel’s relationship could be one reason why Rachel is having doubts. In fact, researchers have found that couples who had broken up and gotten back together at least once exhibited significantly more uncertainty about getting married than couples who hadn’t (Vennum & Johnson, 2014). In a longitudinal study, Vennum and Johnson (2014) surveyed 564 recently-married couples over the first five years of their marriage and compared the experiences of those who had broken up at least once before getting married (“cyclical couples”), to those couples who hadn’t (“noncyclical couples”). These researchers found that cyclical couples experienced significantly more destructive conflict and less relationship satisfaction shortly after marriage compared to noncyclical couples, and that over time, cyclical couples were more likely to experience a trial separation and maintain lower levels of marital satisfaction (Vennum & Johnson, 2014). If Rachel is indeed having doubts because of the cyclical nature of her relationship, research suggests that these doubts are justified and should not be ignored.

Lastly, Rachel’s optimistic expectations about her relationship improving are very common (Lavner, Karney, & Bradbury, 2013). Lavner and colleagues (2013) surveyed both members of 251 recently-married couples eight times over the course of four years. They found that most people tended to predict improvements in their future marital satisfaction, but these optimistic expectations were not actually associated with improved satisfaction later on. In fact, women who were most optimistic about their relationships improving experienced the most dramatic decreases in marital satisfaction over time (Lavner et al., 2013). This suggests that positive thinking is not enough to bolster one’s happiness in marriage. Since Rachel is extremely optimistic about her relationship improving, it is actually more likely that she will experience sharp declines in relationship satisfaction moving forward.

Overall, wives’ experiences of premarital doubts, premarital cycling, and optimistic forecasts were associated with negative outcomes, but we cannot conclude that these factors caused these negative outcomes because of the correlational nature of these longitudinal studies. Therefore, research suggests that Rachel’s situation will likely be associated with relationship dissolution or dissatisfaction, but it is certainly not inevitable. However, knowledge of these trends would be extremely valuable for Rachel, so I would suggest you share these findings with her and encourage her to not simply brush her doubts aside.   

Good luck!

Allie

 

References:

Lavner, J. A., Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (2012). Do cold feet warn of trouble ahead? Premarital uncertainty and four-year marital outcomes. Journal Of Family Psychology, 26(6), 1012-1017. doi:10.1037/a0029912

Lavner, J. A., Karney, B. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (2013). Newlyweds’ optimistic forecasts of their marriage: For better or for worse?. Journal Of Family Psychology, 27(4), 531-540. doi:10.1037/a0033423

Vennum, A., & Johnson, M. D. (2014). The impact of premarital cycling on early marriage. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal Of Applied Family Studies, 63(4), 439-452. doi:10.1111/fare.12082

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