Results of a recent study may sound preposterous and gimmicky — designed for the sole purpose of going viral — but, according to James McNulty, a psychology professor at Florida State University, his findings are very real.
For the study, McNulty determined that couples who looked at images of puppies, babies, and pizza, interspersed with photos of their spouse for six minutes every three days reported experiencing more happiness in their marriage after six weeks.
McNulty and his team of researchers were recruited by officials at the Department of Defense to come up with ideas to help the marriages of military personnel who were deployed in stressful situations and separated from their spouses (the likelihood of divorce among combat veterans is 62% higher than among other men).
For the test, McNulty and his team set out to determine whether people could change their baseline, immediate feelings about their spouses.
“People’s gut level feelings about their partners are very important,” says McNulty. They color your communications with your spouse. If you generally feel light and sunny about your life partner, your interactions with him or her will reflect that attitude. If you generally feel darker, then you tend to shut down or take offense more easily. Gut level feelings are tricky to capture, however, especially if they’re negative. “People are not inclined to admit that because they want to believe they’re with the right partner,” says McNulty. “But our research was showing that if you can capture that gut level feeling it seems to be an important predictor of relationships.”
A popular theory in psychology pertains to how we develop likes and dislikes through a process of associative learning. You find the smell of a home cooked meal appealing because it reminds you of a parent preparing dinner for you as a child. Or perhaps you love a pair of shoes because you won the State Championship in them in high school.
Relationships work the same way.
“If you’re in a relationship and you have a lot of great experiences with your partner, you learn to associate your partner with those experiences and when you see their partner, you feel good,” says McNulty.
The reverse is also true.
Tough times with your partner, perhaps because he or she is stressed or frustrated every time you talk to him or her can lead your brain to link your partner to negative things.
For this reason, therapists often advise couples to go on dates or try something new together so that the brain can have some fun experiences to associate with their spouses and to cancel out the ones that are associated with drudgery, housework, diaper pails and the other vicissitudes of family life.
Eventually, these feelings become automatic. McNulty wanted to see if that process could be used to marital advantage. “It turns out the brain doesn’t really know the difference between some types of associations,” he says, “and so we can kind of trick our minds into associating our partners with positive feelings.”
For the study, McNulty and his team tasked 144 couples with looking at a stream of pre-selected photos online every three days for six weeks. Participants were asked to note whenever a romantic photo of a wedding or a couple holding hands came up. This tactic was implemented to test whether the participant’s brain could be tricked into feeling more positive emotions toward their spouse.
For some viewers, a photo of their spouse would come up alongside a neutral image, like a button. Whereas other participants were shown a photo of their spouse next to a happy picture: a fluffy animal, an adorable child, a delicious food, along with the word wonderful.
Researchers checked in with participants every two weeks to see what images and feelings they associated with their spouse: happy thoughts or sad ones? Those who were shown positive images associated with their spouse reported feeling happier in their marriage.
The results of the study appeared to show that the brain learned to love their spouse — thus leading to being more fulfilled in the marriage.
That said, McNulty is quick to note he doesn’t feel the findings are powerful enough to be developed into a marriage-saving resource that’ll guarantee you’ll live happily ever after. But he and his team are applying for more funding to test the duration of the effect (they only collected data for two weeks after the study finished), and whether the effect would be stronger if the photos were curated for each person’s individual tastes.
Regardless how the results of this research are applied, we think the findings are pretty amazing.
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