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Study: Want to maintain the marital passion? Have a look at some puppies

Originally published on The Big Smoke

Long-term relationships allow us certain benefits. Some of which are security, predictability, love and companionship. However, maintaining passion between couples over the long term is challenging, even in the happiest of relationships. In a long term relationship, passion moves in one direction, that is, it dwindles.

In a recent study, published in Psychology Science, James K. McNulty from Florida State University discovered an unorthodox intervention to help married couples maintain the spark in their relationships. It seems that if you are struggling to maintain long lasting passion in your relationship, viewing pictures of puppies and bunnies can help.

McNulty and his team set out to discover if one’s level of marital satisfaction could be improved by changing their thoughts about their partner without changing any behaviours. The study looked at whether it was possible to improve marital satisfaction by retraining the immediate thoughts and associations that come to your mind when you think about your spouse.

“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” McNulty explained.

"The use of classical conditioning is relatively new in the complex world of relationship counselling."

We have known about respondent or classical conditioning since the 1890s when Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov discovered that his dogs would begin to salivate at the sound of a bell after being exposed to multiple associations of food and the sound of the bell. Could the application of classical conditioning work in the complex world of relationships?

“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 sceptical,” said McNulty.

The research focused on young married couples, all of which were under the age of 40 and had been married for less than 5 years. The average age of the couples was 28 years old and 40 percent of the couples had children.

At the start of the study, couples completed a series of measures to report their marital satisfaction. The test group were shown a stream of images which included pictures of their partner with positive stimuli, such as puppies or the word “wonderful”. Those in the control condition saw their partner’s face with neutral stimuli such as an image of a button. Couples also completed measures of attitude towards their partner every two weeks for eight weeks.

The data showed that the intervention worked. Couples that were exposed to positive stimuli paired with their partner’s face showed more positive automatic reactions to their partner, compared with those who saw neutral pairings. So, marriage satisfaction did increase in the test group.

This result left McNulty feeling “a little surprised”.

The use of classical conditioning is relatively new in the complex world of relationship counselling. It could offer benefits for couples to help cultivate passion and increase positive regard towards their partner. This might be practically interesting and helpful to those in long distance relationships.

It’s an interesting tool to add to your relationship toolbox, however, the most important element for a positive association in your relationship has always been and will always be, behaviour. No amount of bunnies and puppies can make up for or neutralise poor treatment by your spouse.

We can often poke a little good-hearted fun at new couples and their loved up ways. There is always someone in the office that has a slide show of their new partner as their screen saver or pictures of their partner and dog as their desktop background. Perhaps those of us in long-term relationships could learn a thing or two from this. As we view these positive images and stimuli on a daily basis it actually improves how we feel in our relationships.

So as passion moves in ebbs and flows, it is important to keep thinking positive thoughts towards our partners to not only improves marriage satisfaction but also increases a sense of calm, energy and optimism. Optimism being a key to any long term successful marriage!

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