One of the well-known challenges of marriage is keeping the passion alive after years of partnership, as passions tend to cool even in very happy relationships.
In a new study, a team of psychological scientists led by James K. McNulty of Florida State University has developed an unconventional intervention for helping a marriage maintain its spark: pictures of puppies and bunnies.
Previous research has shown that, in many instances, marriage satisfaction declines even when day-to-day behaviors stay the same. This led McNulty and colleagues to hypothesize that an intervention focused on changing someone’s thoughts about their spouse, as opposed to one that targets their behaviors, might improve relationship quality.
“One ultimate source of our feelings about our relationships can be reduced to how we associate our partners with positive affect, and those associations can come from our partners but also from unrelated things, like puppies and bunnies,” McNulty explained.
Repeatedly linking a very positive stimulus to an unrelated one can create positive associations over time – perhaps the most famous example of this kind of conditioned response is Pavlov’s dogs, who salivated at the sound of a bell after being exposed to multiple pairings of meat and the bell sound.
McNulty and colleagues designed their intervention using a similar kind of conditioning called evaluative conditioning: Images of a spouse were repeatedly paired with very positive words or images (like puppies and bunnies). In theory, the positive feelings elicited by the positive images and words would become automatically associated with images of the spouse after practice.
Participants in the study included 144 married couples, all under the age of 40 and married for less than 5 years. On average, participants were around 28 years old and around 40% of the couples had children.
At the start of the study, couples completed a series of measures of relationship satisfaction. A few days later, the spouses came to the lab to complete a measure of their immediate, automatic attitudes toward their partner.
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