It is a commonly cited statistic that half of American marriages will end in divorce. Whether that number is exaggerated or not is up for debate, but every long-term relationship has its hurdles. Add in factors like financial stress and children, and it’s easy to build up resentment and other negative feelings toward your partner.
But research published recently in the journal Psychological Science demonstrated a novel approach to couple’s counseling — and it involves adorable animals. The researchers found that by showing people images of their partners within a photo stream among positive images and words, they could change how the couples felt about each other.
The effect was reminiscent of Ivan Pavlov’s conditioning experiments with his dog, which he trained to associate the act of feeding with the sound of a bell — but instead of salivating for food, the couples were learning to associate positive feelings with their partners.
The researchers studied 144 married couples and assigned them randomly to a positive-association group or a neutral group. The people in the positive group were shown pictures of their partners alongside feel-good images that included puppies, bunnies, sunsets, and words such as “wonderful” and “fabulous.” The neutral group participants were shown photos of their partners alongside ordinary objects that were devoid of cuteness.
Lead author James McNulty of Florida State University and his colleagues were employing an intervention called evaluative conditioning, a well-studied technique where positive or negative associations with one stimulus change based on the presence of another positive or negative stimulus.
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In the case of McNulty’s couples, after eight weeks people who saw their partner associated with positive images reported more positive reactions to their partner compared to their feelings in the beginning of the study. The couples in the neutral group did not experience the same boost.
“I thought this was a really interesting and innovative intervention,” Justin Lavner, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, told Seeker. Lavner specializes in relationship research, and although he was not associated with the study, several of his past papers were cited by McNulty and his colleagues.
While the findings might seem obvious at first glance, Lavner said that they are actually quite impressive.
“People have a long history with their partner,” he noted. “You’d expect that their perceptions of their partner should be pretty set.”
In fact, the researchers were able to cultivate positive reactions easily and relatively quickly. Even better, they could change people’s minds without changing any physical behaviors.
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That’s not to say that behavior isn’t important. The authors emphasize in their study that good behavior is crucial for positive feelings between partners. But, they point out, sometimes feelings toward people change even when behavior stays the same.
This is especially true, Lavner said, in relationships that involve outside stress. Whether it’s stress about children or paying bills, negative feelings between the partners can intensify without any obvious behavioral trigger. Stress, Lavner said, “just becomes one more negative thing that you associate with your partner.”
In these cases, Lavner said, it is important to “break the automatic cycles” of negative association. This study might present one effective way to do just that.
There are various potential uses for the study’s results in a clinical setting. The authors began the research with a grant from the US Department of Defense, in order to help couples navigate the stress of long distance if one partner is deployed. The findings may also help couples that need help in overcoming “the occasional obstacle that is inevitable over the course of a long-term relationship,” the authors wrote in the study, and they could produce a form of therapy that supplements marital counseling.
It may also establish a scientific reason to keep pictures of cute puppies and bunnies on hand at all times. As one commenter on the study’s press release wrote, “wish I would ha[ve] read this before my wife divorce[d] me.”
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