An unusual therapy that involves looking at cute pictures of puppies or bunnies can help rekindle the fading passion in your marriage, scientists have found.
One of the well-known challenges of marriage is keeping the passion alive after years of partnership, as passions tend to decline even in very happy relationships.
Previous research has shown that marriage satisfaction often declines even when day-to-day behaviours stay the same.
Researchers from Florida State University in the US hypothesised that an intervention focused on changing someone's thoughts about their spouse, as opposed to one that targets their behaviors, might improve relationship quality.
They wanted to find out whether it was possible to improve marital satisfaction by subtly retraining the immediate, automatic associations that come to mind when people think about their spouses.
"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," said James K McNulty of Florida State University.
Researchers designed their intervention using evaluative conditioning. Images of a spouse were repeatedly paired with very positive words or images - like puppies and bunnies.
Participants in the study included 144 married couples, all under the age of 40 and married for less than 5 years. At the start of the study, couples completed a series of measures of relationship satisfaction.
A few days later, the spouses completed a measure of their immediate, automatic attitudes toward their partner. Each spouse was asked to individually view a brief stream of images once every 3 days for 6 weeks. Embedded in this stream were pictures of their partner.
Those in the experimental group saw the partner's face paired with positive stimuli (eg an image of a puppy or the word "wonderful") while those in the control condition saw their partner's face matched to neutral stimuli (eg an image of a button).
Couples also completed implicit measures of attitude towards their partner every 2 weeks for 8 weeks. To measure implicit attitude, each spouse was asked to indicate as quickly as possible the emotional tone of positive and negative words after quickly glimpsing a series of faces, which included their partner's face.
The data showed that the evaluative conditions worked. Participants who were exposed to positive images paired with their partner's face showed more positive automatic reactions to their partner over the course of the intervention compared with those who saw neutral pairings.
More importantly, the intervention was associated with overall marriage quality. As in other research, more positive automatic reactions to the partner predicted greater improvements in marital satisfaction over the course of the study.
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.