For those of us looking to keep the spark going in our relationship—assuming you're too squeamish for boudoir photography—there might be a fix everyone can agree on, according to a new study published Monday in Psychological Science. All you may have to do is pose with a cute pupper.
The study's researchers recruited more than a hundred married couples, all under the age of 40 and married for less than five years, in the eight-week experiment.
Then the couples performed a "surveillance task" on a computer every three days for six weeks. Each session, they picked out images and words relevant to the theme of relationships, out of hundreds that popped up for less than two seconds at a time. They also rated how satisfied they were with their relationship and took a test that revealed how they felt towards their partner without explicitly asking them—what's known as the implicit association test, commonly used by psychologists.
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Unbeknownst to the volunteers, however, they were actually split into two groups. During the task, one group was shown pictures of their smiling partners next to a positive thing, like a puppy or the word "wonderful" while the control group saw their partners alongside a bland, neutral thing (think: a baked potato).
Regardless of the group they were in, the couples generally felt more positive vibes toward their partner by trial's end. But those in the experimental group had noticeably greater improvements, and these attitude shifts predicted greater jumps in marital satisfaction. Not only that, but the changes even seemed to last once the sessions had ended—up to two weeks later.
At first glance, the findings seem obvious—the more good things or experiences we mentally associate with our loved ones, the warmer we feel towards them, and the better we feel about the relationship. That's the sound logic behind the advice you might get from a therapist to start taking up shared hobbies and interests with your partner.
But according to lead author James McNulty, a psychology professor at the University of Florida, there's more to it than that. "What's interesting about this study," he says, "is that it suggests we can almost trick our minds into creating such associations artificially."
Even the best of relationships lose their glow after a while, and changes in how people behave or treat their partners can be a big reason why. McNulty's team, however, theorizes there could be something more primal at work: Sometimes, they argue, we might subconsciously think of our partner in a less positive light—without realizing we're doing it, often due to issues like work stress or caring for children.
If that's true, then positive association techniques like those used in the study could help mend or strengthen relationships that aren't really broken in the first place. It could also help maintain relationships that are at a higher risk of fraying—such as among military couples, who are often separated for months at a time.
"The study is actually a pilot test of a procedure we would eventually like to use to help military soldiers remain more satisfied while separated due to military service," McNulty says. (It's worth noting that the study was funded by the Department of Defense.) The technique could also be used as a supplement to more traditional relationship counseling.
For now, however, the study is still just a proof of concept. McNulty's team hopes to obtain more funding from the Department of Defense to further scale their research and quantify exactly how effective this mental trick could be. In the meantime, consider it a good excuse to keep sending the object of your desire as many doge memes you can muster.
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