09/24/2012 04:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Do Cold Feet Warn of Marital Trouble Ahead?

From Much Ado About Nothing to Runaway Bride, and Sex in the City to Bridesmaids, we often hear stories about people feeling uncertain before their wedding day. In a recent blog on The Huffington Post, for example, Amanda Chatel tells of reassuring her friend that her doubts were "just cold feet" and that "it will be fine!" But should these types of thoughts simply be dismissed, or do they actually warn of trouble ahead?

Until now, we have only been able to rely on folk wisdom to answer this question, but my colleagues Thomas Bradbury and Benjamin Karney at UCLA and I wanted to test it using scientific data. In our study, recently published in the Journal of Family Psychology, we asked 232 recently married couples in their first marriages whether they had "ever been uncertain or hesitant about getting married" after they got engaged. Then we followed up with them every six months for the first four years of their marriage. This allowed us to examine whether couples' doubts would predict how marriages unfold.

What did we find? First, as we might expect, premarital uncertainty was common: in two-thirds of couples, one or both partners had doubts. Doubts were also more common among men than women: 47 percent of husbands and 38 percent of wives had doubts. Second, and most important, doubts predicted marital outcomes four years later. Wives' doubts were especially predictive of divorce: 19 percent of couples in which wives had doubts were divorced four years later, but only 8 percent of couples in which wives did not have doubts ended up divorced. Husbands' doubts did not significantly predict divorce, although divorce rates were somewhat higher among husbands with doubts (14 percent) than husbands without doubts (9 percent). Among couples who did not divorce, husbands' and wives' doubts predicted less satisfying marriages.

We wanted to be sure that these effects were explained by doubts and not by other factors, like how satisfied the couples were when we initially interviewed them, their personality, or their family history. Although these factors also mattered, premarital doubts still predicted poorer outcomes four years later, even when we accounted for these other variables. So there was indeed something uniquely revealing about premarital doubts -- and that news was not good.

Returning to the title of this article, the results of this study were clear: cold feet did indeed warn of trouble ahead. Premarital doubts -- as reported by the partners who experienced them in response to a simple "yes or no" question -- did predict poorer marital outcomes four years later, with rates of divorce 2.5 times higher among women with doubts and significantly lower marital satisfaction among men and women with doubts. The warning signs were there from the beginning and the partners knew it.

So what does this study mean for people who are contemplating marriage, or who were recently married? It doesn't mean that doubts are going to predict poor outcomes for everyone, or that someone experiencing doubts should run the other direction as quickly as he or she can. But it does suggest that doubts shouldn't simply be ignored or laughed away, no matter what well-intentioned friends, family, or romantic comedies may tell us.

Pay attention to doubts; odds are good that they signify something meaningful. Individuals with doubts can use them to start a conversation with their partner about those lingering issues that are still nagging them. These conversations might help confirm that the two of you can handle having difficult discussions, which will help down the road, or might require that the assistance of a couples therapist or another professional to help reach some resolution. Either way, you'll have learned something valuable as you begin the next step of your relationship.


Justin Lavner is a UCLA doctoral candidate in psychology and lead author of the new study on pre-wedding doubts.