His charisma was big enough to make his bad habits seem small, more like quirks than flaws. The cigarettes on his breath; the extra weight around the middle; the indifference to clothing and appearances — surely these were minor things, correctable in time.
In the months leading up to the wedding, in 1988, even the fact that he’d been living with his mother at age 38 seemed somehow explainable, if not ideal.
“How about that for a red flag?" Jincey Huck, a state court employee in St. Louis, said of her first husband, who has since died. “Deep down I knew it was a mistake, but I wanted to be married, I wanted kids, all that. I had cold feet the entire time," said Huck, now 51.
Psychologists have studied decision-making for more than a century, trying to tease apart how biases, emotion and personality affect big choices and small ones. They have studied people playing investment games. They have taken brain images during hypothetical moral decisions. They have compared the accuracy of snap judgments to long deliberation, trying to gauge the value of subconscious instincts.
But it’s a lot harder to simulate in a laboratory the sort of big life decisions that are risky and hard to reverse: whether to move across the country. Whether to take a new job, or buy a new house, even switch from PC to Mac. And, perhaps biggest of all: whether to walk down the aisle or split up.
“Virtually every big, real-life decision requires the decision-maker to resolve 10 fundamental questions, or what I call cardinal issues," said J. Frank Yates, a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Michigan’s business school. People only feel real confidence, he said, when they begin to address them all, including trade-offs and timing.
Most people, of course, aren’t experts in decision science. They decide based on their own beliefs, whims and their gut.
So how instructive are gut feelings — particularly cold feet — when there are so many moving parts and the stakes are so high? A study published in the current issue of The Journal of Family Psychology provides an answer: plenty instructive, at least when it comes to marriage.
“Having doubts before marriage is not only common, it predicted a higher divorce rate for women and more dissatisfaction in marriages for men and women," compared with newlyweds with no doubts, said Justin Lavner, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The study, with co-authors Benjamin Karney and Thomas Bradbury of UCLA, is the first to examine premarital cold feet in a group of couples over time.
That gut-level doubt can portend coming trouble seems true by definition, self-evident. Yet most big decisions prompt some nervous hesitation, and research suggests that it is the nature and source of those doubts that matter, not their mere presence. Many of the psychological dynamics at play in premarital decision-making are similar to those that build around any big decision.
“The important thing to note is that most people who get divorced do not have major doubts going in" to the marriage initially, even if cold feet may increase the odds, said Arthur Aron, a psychologist at Stony Brook University. “At the same time there are factors — like disagreements with the other person’s parents — that may seem minor but become more important later, for instance, when you have kids."
Several distractions can make these traps hard to appreciate. One is external pressure created by a wedding. “People get caught up in it and dismiss cold feet as, ‘Oh, that’s only the jitters,’" said Anne Milford, co-author with Jennifer Gauvain of “How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy" (Random House 2010), who interviewed about 200 women who had had strong doubts at the altar.
“Women most often said they knew they were making a mistake but did it anyway, often because they had no one who’d listen to them," Milford said.
Two others elements that blur the decision are internal, less conscious, and can work against one another.
Both are types of idealization. In a series of studies, Sandra Murray of the State University of New York at Buffalo and others have shown that new lovers have a strong tendency to idealize their partner, in the way that Huck did: Her friends are kind of sweet, when sober. He gets depressed mostly because he’s so sensitive.
Doubts don’t evaporate; they’re suppressed, only to return later.
The other is an expectation many have, of exquisite happiness.
“People feel that they have to find the ideal, perfect Mr. or Ms. Right, who is their soul mate, with whom they will feel passionate love forever, and who will make them happy forever," said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, and author of “The Myths of Happiness" (Penguin, 2013).
She added: “Of course, both research and anecdotal evidence shows that this is not what typically occurs" and this type of person can easily become disappointed.
Being mindful of both distortions — and finding someone outside the wedding frenzy to listen — is one way to check whether those cold feet are ominous.
Another, Yates said, is to sit down and write about the doubts. “If a person writes about a decision problem, as opposed to simply thinking about it, she develops greater confidence in the correctness of the decision she eventually reaches," he said in an email. And that confidence is well placed, his studies have suggested.
“I really did ignore everything; I let it all slide," said Huck, who is now happily remarried. “The worst part was afterward, knowing I’d done something I knew at the time was a mistake."
Most big life decisions trigger some sort of nervous hesitation. And when it comes to marriage, those gut-level feelings can be powerful predictors of a successful union, according to recent research.