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Word Games May Predict Life of Relationship

By Kathleen Doheny
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, July 13 (HealthDay News) -- Want to know if your romantic relationship will last "'til death do you part" -- or if you are cruising toward a breakup?

A simple word association game may reveal the hidden truth about your union, a new study suggests.

Most research on successful relationships is flawed because it relies on asking the people involved how they feel about each other, said researcher Dr. Ronald Rogge, an associate professor at the University of Rochester and co-author of a study recently published online in the journal Psychological Science.

That strategy assumes partners know how happy they are -- and tell the truth -- which is not always the case, he said.

Instead, Rogge and his colleagues used word association games that are often used to detect bias to see what people really think about their partners.

The researchers asked 222 volunteers who were involved in a romantic relationship to supply the partner's first name and two other words related to the partner, such as a pet name.

Next, the participants watched a monitor as three types of words were presented, one at a time, in the following three categories: good (for example, vacation or sharing); bad (such as, death or criticizing); and partner-related (names or traits).

In the first exercise, participants were told to press the space bar if a good word or partner word showed up. "What we were really interested to see is how easy it was to have partner words paired with a good target," Rogge said.

In another exercise, the participants were instructed to press the space bar if they saw a bad word or partner word. "If they were really good at that, that would suggest in the back of their mind they had a negative attitude toward the partner," Rogge said.

The median age of the couples in one exercise was 25; in the other, 23.

Rogge's team followed-up with the participants for one year and discovered that those who found it easy to associate their partner with bad words and difficult to associate their partner with good words were more likely to separate in the next year. The ones "who did well on the partner-bad tests and poorly on partner-good had a 75 percent risk of breakup," Rogge said.

"They had the least positive and most negative subconscious attitude," he said.

At the study's start, participants had also reported on the strength of their relationships. When Rogge compared the word association test results with the self-reports, he found the tests did a better job of predicting breakups.

How is that possible? He explained that the task kept the conscious mind busy as the researchers assessed the participants' subconscious thoughts. "It could either be something they don't know themselves or are not willing to tell you," he said.

The game results could reveal the earliest signs of a relationship unraveling, possibly in time to save the partnership, the authors noted.

The new research is termed a "watershed" contribution by another expert, Dr. Eli Finkel, an associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern University, who has researched relationships.

The findings illustrate "the power of the unconscious to influence relationship outcomes," Finkel said. However, he added, "it's too early to know whether this unconscious measure will be useful for clinical or assessment purposes."

But Rogge said the strategy may eventually be used by therapists to assess relationship health and intervene if needed. Meanwhile, the test is available on his university Web site.

"You could do the test yourself and see where your attitudes lie," Rogge said.

"If you get feedback that says you don't have the strongest positive attitude and you are starting to get a subconscious negative attitude toward your partner, I would not immediately recommend breaking up," he said. "Use it as information. There is a lot people can do to make the relationship stronger."

More information

Kansas States University has more about healthy relationships.

SOURCES: Ronald Rogge, Ph.D., associate professor, clinical and social sciences in psychology, University of Rochester, Rochester, N.Y.; Eli Finkel, Ph.D., associate professor, social psychology, Northwestern University, Chicago; , June 2010, Psychological Science

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