Viewing pictures of cute animals and other positive stimuli could help to increase marital satisfaction.
Researchers suggest that retraining ourselves to associate our partners with positive stimuli - such as images of puppies or bunnies - may improve marital satisfaction.
Study leader James K. McNulty, of Florida State University in Tallahassee, and team recently reported their findings in the journal Psychological Science.
What is the key to a happy marriage? Of course, there is no single answer to this question, but research has provided some clues.
But according to McNulty and colleagues, previous research has indicated that, even when there is no change in the everyday behavior of married couples, a decline in marital satisfaction can still occur.
With this in mind, the team speculated that a fall in marital satisfaction may sometimes be down to an increase in negative thoughts about a spouse, rather than negative behavior. But according to the researchers, this is something that can be addressed.
Evaluative conditioning and marriage
For their study, McNulty and team set out to investigate whether or not it is possible to rekindle a marital spark by learning to conjure positive associations when thinking about a spouse - a theory known as "evaluative conditioning."
In simple terms, evaluative conditioning refers to how we can change our attitudes toward an object or person based on an unrelated association.
To see whether evaluative conditioning could be used to improve marital satisfaction, the researchers enrolled 144 couples aged 40 or under, all of whom had been married for under 5 years.
At study baseline, all couples completed assessments that measured their marital satisfaction, while their immediate, impulsive attitudes toward their spouse were assessed a few days later.
For the next part of the study, each spouse was asked to examine a series of images once every 3 days, for a total of 6 weeks. Some spouses consistently viewed images of their partner's face alongside positive stimuli, such as images of puppies, bunnies, or the word "wonderful." This was the experimental group.
Other spouses, however, viewed images of their partner's face paired with neutral stimuli, such as a picture of a button. This was the control group.
Inherent attitudes of spouses toward their partner were measured every 2 weeks throughout the duration of the 8-week study. This involved asking each spouse to quickly display their positive or negative emotions in response to various images, including images of their partners.
The marital satisfaction of each spouse was also measured throughout the study.
Improving marital satisfaction
The researchers found that, compared with the control group, the experimental group displayed more positive impulsive reactions toward their partner over the course of the study.
Notably, the experimental group also demonstrated greater improvements in marital satisfaction, compared with the control group.
"I was actually a little surprised that it worked," admits McNulty. "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."
Still, the team's findings certainly indicate that evaluative conditioning may be an effective strategy for boosting marital satisfaction.
"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."
James K. McNulty