If you feel like your marriage is losing its spark, it may be time to look at some cute animals.
Researchers from Florida State University have found that when people view happy stimulus (such as images of puppies and bunnies) alongside photos of their longterm partner, they begin to see their partner more favourably.
This in tern can lead to an improvement in relationship quality and overall marriage satisfaction.
The research team wanted to find out whether it was possible to improve marital satisfaction by subtly changing the automatic associations that come to mind when people think about their spouses.
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.
The team 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 five 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.
Each spouse was asked to individually view a brief stream of images once every three days for six weeks.
Embedded in this stream were pictures of their partner. Those in the experimental group always saw the partner's face paired with positive stimuli (e.g. an image of a puppy or the word "wonderful") while those in the control condition saw their partner's face matched to neutral stimuli (e.g. an image of a button).
Couples also completed implicit measures of attitude towards their partner every two weeks for eight weeks. To measure implicit attitude, each spouse was asked to indicate as quickly as possible the emotional tone of positive and negative words after quickly glimpsing a series of faces, which included their partner's face.
The data showed that participants who were exposed to positive images paired with their partner's face showed more positive automatic reactions to their partner over the course of the intervention, compared with those who saw neutral pairings.
More importantly, the intervention was associated with overall improved marriage satisfaction.
Lead researcher James K. McNulty admitted he was "a little surprised" the cute photos had worked.
"All the theory I reviewed on evaluative conditioning suggested it should, but existing theories of relationships, and just the idea that something so simple and unrelated to marriage could affect how people feel about their marriage, made me skeptical," he said.
It's important to note that McNulty and his colleagues are not arguing that behaviour in a relationship is irrelevant to marital satisfaction. They noted that interactions between spouses are actually the most important factor for setting automatic associations.
However, the new findings suggest that a brief intervention focused on automatic attitudes could be useful as one aspect of marriage counselling or as a resource for couples in difficult long-distance situations, such as soldiers.
"The research was actually prompted by a grant from the Department of Defense - I was asked to conceptualise and test a brief way to help married couples cope with the stress of separation and deployment," McNulty said.
"We would really like to develop a procedure that could help soldiers and other people in situations that are challenging for relationships."