Jan Faukner/Shutterstock
Source: Jan Faukner/Shutterstock

Do you ever wonder where the zest went in your relationship? Was it there years ago, but now you feel your relationship has a case of the blahs? Even the best of relationships can feel static at times. Perhaps you’ve gotten into the repetitive cycle of work and family obligations, or you're just plain bored with each other. Maybe there’s nothing particularly wrong with your relationship, but there’s also not much that’s vivid and exciting. When relationships are new, there’s a vitality that comes from learning everything you can about your partner, not to mention experiencing your world as if for the first time. You may feel now that the price you pay for getting comfortable is worth it, but you're still wistful for some of that initial zing.

It’s possible that time itself is a contributor to declines in partner satisfaction over the course of long-term relationships. People are attracted to novelty, and when it wears off and familiarity takes over, there’s bound to be some dissipation of excitement. Florida State University’s James McNulty and colleagues (2017) note that it’s not the behaviors themselves that people engage in which influence relationship satisfaction, but the sheer passage of years:

     “Behaviors tend to be relatively stable over time despite average declines in relationship satisfaction, and even the changes in behavior that do occur do not reliably account for changes in relationship satisfaction” (p. 1032).

In other words, no matter how couples behave, they’re going to inevitably slip in satisfaction the longer they’re together. Even interventions designed to improve a couple’s communication patterns, the FSU team notes, may not help them feel better about their relationship. To offset the erosion of a couple’s relationship satisfaction, the research team believes that couples' “automatic affective partner associations” are what need to shift. The purpose of their research was to examine whether they could change those associations and, in the process, overcome the downhill trend in satisfaction over time.

The reasoning of their study is as follows: If you’re going to be satisfied with your relationship, you need to have positive emotional associations with your partner. Unfortunately, as time goes on, stressors accumulate — work-life-family balance, financial issues, and the myriad other problems that couples face in their day-to-day lives. As these pile up, you shift your negative emotional associations from the stressors to your partner. Your partner doesn’t have to do anything other than exist for these negative associations to start to creep into the relationship.  

The McNulty et al. team tested a model of “evaluative conditioning” to find out if they could change the way couples felt about their relationships by changing the automatic associations they had with their partners — specifically, to their partner’s face. Thus, if your partner has acquired negative associations due to the fact that he or she is there when you’re feeling stressed, is it possible that you can regain the positive associations you once had by seeing your partner’s face paired with a pleasant stimulus?

Prior to the experiment, participants posed for photos taken from nine perspectives; in five, they were told to smile, and in four they made neutral expressions. In the subsequent conditioning phase of the study, the experimental group saw a series of images and words flashed on a computer screen that involved either positive conditioning in the form of their partner’s smiling face paired with a positive image (a puppy) or word (“wonderful”), while the control group saw their partner’s smiling face paired with a neutral image or word. The couples were instructed to run through their assigned set of conditioning materials once every three days for six weeks.

The authors measured relationship satisfaction with standard questionnaires, but also used an implicit attitude test to tap into their emotional associations with their partners. In this test, their partner’s neutral faces were paired with either positive or negative words. If they had a deeper positive association to their partner, this would be evident in a bias toward giving a faster response to the partner-positive word pairing than the partner-negative word pairing (e.g., “partner-good” would elicit a faster response than “partner-bad”). The key test of the proposal that negative associations are responsible for declines in marital satisfaction over time would be whether, after the evaluative conditioning intervention, the participants would be much quicker in picking out their partner’s face when paired with a positive stimulus than when it was paired with a negative one.

The findings indeed supported the proposed effects of evaluative conditioning, showing that in couples conditioned to view their partner favorably, relationship satisfaction was higher. The reason appeared to be primarily the impact of the conditioning on those automatic partner attitudes. Just by seeing the partner’s face paired with positively valenced words seemed to be enough to cause the participants to feel more satisfied.

Although it’s unlikely you’ll be able, as they say, to “try this at home,” there are several takeaways that can help you with your own relationship tune-up. Most important, the findings support the idea of positive conditioning. You can try the thought experiment of thinking not about the times your partner made you angry or frustrated, but the times when you and your partner laughed together or shared a tender moment. When you catch yourself mentally replaying an argument, stop and instead replay a situation in which your partner helped and supported you. If you’ve got a picture of your partner on your desk or dresser, look at it while you remember a particularly enjoyable occasion. If it’s your wedding photo, there’s an even greater likelihood that it can trigger positive memories.

The method used in the McNulty et al. study was a precise one involving well-controlled conditions and measures. Taking this measure into your own home won’t give it quite that level of methodological rigor. However, even if it’s not quite perfect, it seems like a worthwhile means to try to enhance your fulfillment by breathing new life into your closest relationship.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


McNulty, J. K., Olson, M. A., Jones, R. E., & Acosta, L. M. (2017). Automatic associations between one’s partner and one’s affect as the proximal mechanism of change in relationship satisfaction: Evidence from evaluative conditioning. Psychological Science, 28(8), 1031-1040. doi:10.1177/0956797617702014

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