wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

My wife has the annoying habit of squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube. She’s done it for as long as I’ve known her, going on 30 years. In the early days, it didn’t bother me. I simply accepted it as one of her quirks, and I pushed the toothpaste up from the bottom of the tube to fill the gap she’d left in the middle.

But over the years, this particular habit has become a pet peeve of mine. I’d find the gnarled remains of a toothpaste tube, its innards squeezed out in a death grip, and I resented the fact that I always had to resuscitate it. Grudgingly, I'd redistribute the remaining toothpaste back to the middle of the tube, where it’s supposed to be.

Oh, we’ve had words about the proper way to dispense toothpaste — heated arguments would be more accurate. “Why can’t you understand that you’ve got to squeeze from the bottom?” I demanded to know. “What’s the big deal?” she’d reply.

Indeed, what was the big deal? After all, there was once a time when her habit didn’t bother me. So why does it bother me now? It wasn’t a change in her behavior that had upset me. Rather, it was my attitude toward her consistent behavior that had changed.

Even when marriages remain mostly happy, partners still generally experience a decline in relationship satisfaction over time. In the early days, the positive feelings so outweigh the negative that we turn a blind eye to our partner’s faults. But as the years grind by, those faults loom ever larger.

The standard model in the psychology of relationships is interdependence theory. It proposes that partners determine their level of relationship satisfaction by doing a cost-benefit analysis. If the way your partner treats you is mostly positive, you’ll feel satisfied and want to stay in the relationship. But if your partner’s actions toward you inflict more harm than good, you’ll feel dissatisfaction and want to disengage. In other words, interdependence theory predicts that as your partner’s behaviors change, your satisfaction in the marriage will go up or down.

However, psychologist James McNulty and his colleagues at Florida State University think there’s a mistake with this theory. They point out that people’s behaviors tend to be quite stable over time. We pick up habits fairly early in life and let them guide us through most of our day-to-day activities. And, of course, we all know how difficult it is to change a bad habit, even when we really want to. Despite our concerted efforts to mend our ways, before we know it we’re back in the same old routine again.

Given the stability of behavior, McNulty and colleagues question whether declines in relationship satisfaction are really due to changes in partners’ behaviors, as interdependence theory predicts. In fact, ample research shows that stresses outside the marriage can be quite detrimental to marital happiness. Problems at work, financial difficulties, the stress of child-rearing — all chip away at the emotional foundation of marriage, leaving us more and more unhappy with the relationship.

McNulty and colleagues argue that our attitudes toward our partner can become more negative over time due to a common psychological process known as misattribution. We humans are always trying to explain why things happen, but those explanations are often wrong. When someone cuts you off in traffic, your first thought is that he’s an idiot who doesn’t know how to drive, while the more likely explanation — that he just didn’t see you — rarely comes to mind.

We also misattribute the sources of our emotions. We think we’re in a good mood because the weather’s so nice, without considering the fact that we’ve encountered little stress that day. Likewise, we might misattribute a bad mood to nasty weather, instead of the worries that are the actual cause.

Modern life throws so many hassles our way — the daily commute, problems with the boss or coworkers in the office, the incessant demands of parenting. We often don’t notice, or we refuse to acknowledge, the sources of stress in our lives, as if by denying their existence they’ll simply disappear — I enjoy driving, I like my job, I love my kids. These rationalizations may be true, but the stress builds up nevertheless.

When accumulating stress finally rises to the level of consciousness, we look around for a cause in our immediate environment: Damn it! She’s mangled the toothpaste tube again! It makes me so angry when she does that! But wait — am I really that angry about a tube of toothpaste? I need to stop and think whether it's really something else, such as problems at work or financial worries, that is really at the root of my bad mood.

Over the years, we bring outside stresses into the home, and in the home is where we seek their causes. We misattribute our bad moods to something our partner has done, and we become more and more dissatisfied with our relationship. But it can work the other way, too. In other words, we can come to appreciate our partner more if we associate pleasant feelings with them. This is the idea that McNulty and colleagues tested in an experiment.

They recruited couples to participate in an eight-week study. First, they measured each partner’s relationship satisfaction. Then they asked each member of the couple to view a slide show three times a week for six weeks. The slide show consisted of either pleasant or neutral pictures with photos of their spouse interleaved. Every two weeks, the researchers again measured each partner's level of relationship satisfaction.

In this experiment, the researchers made use of a technique known as automatic affective association, a form of emotional conditioning. When a neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with a pleasant stimulus, it gradually takes on pleasant associations itself. This process is well documented in the lab, and it’s a fundamental tool in advertising.

As expected, the partners who viewed the positive slide shows reported increased relationship satisfaction that remained higher than baseline even two weeks after the experiment was over. Those in the neutral condition, meanwhile, remained unchanged in their level of satisfaction with their relationship. The point here is that viewing pictures of their spouse along with sunflowers and sunsets and waterfalls and wedding cakes had absolutely nothing to do with their spouse’s behavior, and yet participants developed warmer feelings toward them nonetheless.

McNulty and colleagues suggest that their technique of automatic affective association could be a useful tool in marriage counseling. In fact, something of the sort is already a common practice. It’s not unusual to begin therapy by asking a beleaguered couple to list three or five things about their partner that they like. When we exert the effort to conjure up pleasant thoughts about our spouse, we’re already beginning the process of changing our attitudes about them.

Even in the day-to-day tussles of married life, it’s a good practice to let go of annoying trifles and focus more on the positive aspects of your relationship. After all, there was once a time when you thought you’d live happily ever after with your spouse, and you didn’t sweat the small stuff. By being mindful about the true source of the minor irritations in your life, you can more fully appreciate the good things your partner does for you each day.

References

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. Pre-published May 31, 2017. DOI: 10.1177/0956797617702014.s:567976177020

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