If you've been married for any length of time, you've probably heard plenty of advice about how to keep "the spark" alive between you and your spouse. Typically we hear tips like "make time for date night" or "compliment each other." But a new study offers quite a different take on how couples can kindle the passion in their marriage. According to a team of psychological scientists led by James K. McNulty of Florida State University, the key to a happy union lies in pictures of puppies and bunnies.
The study, which was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Sciences, included 144 married couples, all of whom were under the age of 40 and married for less than five years. The average age of the participants was 28, and less than half of the couples had children.
The researchers began the study by looking at previous research, which shows that marriage satisfaction tends to decline even when partners' daily behaviors stay the same. Therefore, they hypothesized that in order to increase the quality of a relationship, they would need to change how someone thought about their spouse rather than just their behavior towards that partner.
To "retrain" the participants' thoughts about their respective spouses, each spouse was asked to view a short stream of images once every three days for six weeks. The images included pictures of their partner. Those in the experimental group always saw the partner's face paired with something positive, like an image of a puppy or the word "wonderful." Those in the control group saw their partner's face paired with neutral images, like a picture of a button. It worked: The experimental group showed more positive automatic reactions to their partner over the course of the study than the control group. More importantly, the experimental group reported better overall marriage quality throughout the study.
“I was actually a little surprised that it worked,” McNulty said. “Just the idea that something so simple and unrelated to marriage could affect how people feel about their marriage made me skeptical.”
It’s important to note that McNulty and his team are not suggesting that behavior in a relationship is irrelevant to marital satisfaction. In fact, they note that interactions between spouses are actually the most important factor for setting automatic associations in the first place.
However, the new findings suggest that a brief intervention focused on automatic attitudes could be useful as one aspect of marriage counseling 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," McNulty said. "I was asked to conceptualize and test a brief way to help married couples cope with the stress of separation and deployment. We would really like to develop a procedure that could help soldiers and other people in situations that are challenging for relationships.”
Our takeaway? You should still make time for date night. But texting your spouse a cute puppy meme every now and then probably wouldn't hurt.