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Thursday, September 20, 2012

If you have cold feet, you may want to think twice about marrying

Pre-wedding jitters, sometimes referred to as ‘cold feet’ are not uncommon. On the other hand, they aren’t universal either. Justin Lavner, Benjamin Karney and Thomas Bradbury from the University of California, Los Angeles wondered whether these feelings of anxiety could have any predictive power about the longevity of the ensuing marriage. For better or worse, women’s negative prenuptial feelings do correlate with a higher divorce rate.

Both spouses from 232 newlywed couples were invited to participate in a study. Each couple had been married for less than six months at the time of recruitment and no one in the study had been married before or had children. Each person filled out questionnaires and was interviewed every six months for the next four years.

At the initial interview, each spouse was asked, “Were you ever uncertain or hesitant about getting married?” and asked to rate their engagement period as ‘smooth’ or ‘difficult and turbulent’. In subsequent interviews, subjects were asked to rate their marital satisfaction.

Overall, 47% of husbands and 38% of wives had had some hesitancy or uncertainty about getting married. Premarital doubts did not correlate with age, income, education, premarital cohabitation, length of pre-marriage relationship or parental divorce. For men only, uncertainty did go along with having a higher level of neuroticism.

By the end of the four-year study, 27 couples had divorced. Whether or not men had entered a marriage with trepidation did not predict whether the couple would soon divorce. On the other hand, women who had had cold feet were two and a half times more likely to end the marriage than women who had not had any doubts.

I have a couple of comments about this. First, even though more than a third of women had pre-wedding jitters, only 11% of the couples went on to divorce. Clearly, having cold feet need not spell doom for a marriage. Also, this study does not address the nature of the doubts. Do worries about raising future children together spell doom more often than commitment fears? Finally, four years is a pretty short time frame in which to assess a marriage. I’d be interested to know how many marriages that began with at least one partner feeling some doubts survived to celebrate a 25th anniversary. 

Justin Lavner, Benjamin Karney, & Thomas Bradbury (2012). Do Cold Feet Warn of Trouble Ahead? Premarital Uncertainty and Four-Year Marital Outcomes Journal of Family Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0029912