If your relationship’s in a rough spot or just a bit mundane… maybe look at some photos of your partner cuddling a cute puppy?
Sounds like strange advice, but new research published in Psychological Science suggests couples can benefit from creating mental links between things that inherently make them happy and their partners.
It’s good old classical conditioning applied to the romantic relationship context. Remember Pavlov’s dogs? Ivan Pavlov and his grad students noticed that their lab dogs, who were being fed for a digestion study, were salivating before they received any food. Recognizing that this could be important, Pavlov tried to condition his dogs to salivate when he twanged a tuning fork by repeatedly pairing together the sound of the tuning fork with the presentation of food. Soon, the sound of the tuning fork alone could elicit salivating.
Leap forward to today: McNulty and colleagues (2017) decided to see if they could improve couples’ basic feelings about their partners by using classical conditioning. They focused on people’s perceptions about their partners, testing if by linking those perceptions to positive, happy reactions, they might actually shift people’s feelings about their marriages.
How did they do it? Nearly 150 married couples, 40 yrs old or younger, participated in this study, viewing 225 images on a computer screen every few days for 6 weeks. Included among these images, for half of the couples – the experimental group -, were pictures of their romantic partners presented with positive images (e.g., photos of cute puppies or sunsets). The other half – the control group – saw pictures of their romantic partners linked with neutral images (e.g., photos of buttons). The researchers were interested in comparing how participants in the experimental and control conditions might differ on implicit and explicit measures of marital satisfaction.
It’s an unconventional intervention, but an interesting idea: why not retrain the brain a bit and use evaluative conditioning to increase positive feelings towards a partner? The findings showed that the conditioning worked: people who saw their partners paired with positive images later showed more positive automatic reactions towards their partner and also reported more improvements in overall marital satisfaction over the course of the study than the other group.
Maybe this is justification for sprinkling your office desk with happy photos of your partner at your favorite vacation spot, holding a cute baby, or from that great night out. But, as fascinating as these findings are, they in no way discount the importance of spousal interactions. The dynamics that emerge and are reinforced within a couple are very much at play in determining partner perceptions.
Yet, it could be helpful to know that practicing mental associations linking a partner with positive concepts can help automatic attitudes of couples. This might be one new tool that marriage counselors can use to support couples in difficult situations. Indeed, McNulty and colleagues (2017) work was supported by the Department of Defense in light of the challenges military couples and families experience when a partner is deployed.