How Word Games Predict Romantic Success

Can you predict your relationship’s future by playing a simple word association game? Yes, according to this new study. Here, we spell out the details... including a link to the test itself!

By Dave Singleton

ho wouldn’t want to look into a crystal ball and find out if their new relationship will last — or fall apart at the seams? Just think of the emotional pain (and time) you could save if you had science on your side, telling you when it’s time to leave!

According to this new study published online in Psychological Science, a simple word association game may reveal the hidden truth about your budding relationship’s potential.
I’m not usually a fan of playing games when it comes to dating.
I’m not usually a fan of playing games when it comes to dating, but here’s one that might actually help both of you better understand your particular relationship dynamic. I’m game… aren’t you?

The truth is that most research about successful relationships is flawed because it relies primarily on asking the people involved how they feel about each other to compile accurate data. The danger of self-reporting is that you can’t report what you don’t actually know. Maybe you refuse to see the obvious facts (denial is not just a river in Egypt). Or, perhaps you’re aware of — but unwilling to share — key information that could enlighten your partner or a counselor about the real state of your affair.

That’s why word association games — often used to detect bias about gender, race, religion or any number of characteristics — can help us understand what we really think about our partners. Do these same associations send out a subconscious flag about a relationship that’s going south before we’re even consciously aware of it?

How the test works
To this their theory, researchers asked 222 people in romantic relationships to complete word-sorting exercises, also known as “partner-focused go/no-go association tasks” (or partner-GNAT). Each subject supplied his or her partner’s first name and two other words related to the partner, such as a pet name. Then the participants viewed a screen 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. In another exercise, the participants were instructed to press the space bar if they saw a bad word or partner-related word on the screen.

How the test results compared to reality
One year later, a follow-up session with participants revealed that those who found it easy to associate their partner with bad words and difficult to associate their partner with good words were 75 percent more likely to have separated the following year. (Those aren’t the kind of odds you want your relationship to have!) You’d think that romantic partners would realize how happy or unhappy they are (and be willing to admit it), but that’s not always the case. Notably, this particular word association game
It can be risky when you take matters into your own hands.
did a better job of predicting a breakup than the researchers’ initial survey, which asked the participants to report on the strength of their relationships before the study began.

These findings suggest that, well before people are aware that their relationship is actually deteriorating, negative perceptions may already be seeping into their subconscious and triggering the decline in their happiness with each other. This word association game, then, isn’t just a litmus test to see whether or not your love will survive long-term; rather, its results could reveal the earliest signs that your relationship’s in trouble — possibly even in time to save it! By acknowledging the power of the subconscious to influence people’s reactions down the road, tests such as these this might help couples be more open to potential warning signs in the future.

What could this mean for your relationship?
Clearly, the findings illustrate the power of the unconscious to influence the future of our relationships. But as researcher Dr. Ronald Rogge, associate professor at the University of Rochester and the study’s coauthor, noted at the time of the its release in 2010: “it’s too early to know whether this unconscious measure will be useful for clinical or assessment purposes.” Given the positive results from this study, some therapists might adopt the test as a means of assessing a couple’s relationship health and adjust their counseling techniques as needed. Sharing the test’s results with a partner in a professional setting might be a better way for couples to hear what could be surprising, disappointing, or downright scary news.

If you’ve got more of a “do-it-yourself” approach to things, why not take the test together by visiting The Interplay of Self & Partner Identities in Relationships Test on the University of Rochester’s website? There, you’ll find the test’s instructions — along with several risks and benefits of taking it together — clearly spelled out. Dr. Rogge suggests that couples treat it as a way to privately and confidentially determine their subconscious attitudes and perceptions about their relationship. But be warned: It can be risky when you take matters into your own hands when it comes to diagnosing your relationship’s health, and Dr. Rogge warns against having any knee-jerk reactions. “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 says. “Use it as information. There is a lot people can do to make their relationship stronger.”

While it’s scary to think about how much of your life is determined by your unconscious attitudes and feelings, there’s also a bright side to staying open to new ways of learning about each other. After all, any troubling news you unearth from taking this test today could help put you and your partner on more solid ground tomorrow.

Dave Singleton, an award-winning writer and columnist for since 2003, is the author of two books on dating and relationships. Visit Dave’s website and send your dating questions and comments to him at
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