A New Way to Make Your Relationship Happier?

Research sheds light on a novel love-boosting strategy.

Posted Jun 27, 2017

Iuliia Bondarenko/Shutterstock
Source: Iuliia Bondarenko/Shutterstock

If your relationship's in a rough spot or has just gotten a bit mundane, maybe you should look at some photos of your partner cuddling a cute puppy.

Sounds like strange advice, but new research published in Psychological Science suggests that couples can benefit from creating mental links between things that inherently make them happy and their partners.

It's good old classical conditioning applied to romantic relationships. Remember Pavlov's dogs? Ivan Pavlov and his grad students noticed that their lab dogs, who were being fed for a digestion study, were salivating before they received any food. Recognizing that this could be important, Pavlov tried to condition his dogs to salivate when he twanged a tuning fork by repeatedly pairing the sound of the fork with the presentation of food. Soon, the sound of the tuning fork alone could elicit salivating.

Leap forward to today: McNulty and colleagues (2017) decided to see if they could improve couples' basic feelings about their partners by using classical conditioning. They focused on people's perceptions about their partners, testing whether, by linking those perceptions to positive, happy reactions, they might actually shift people's feelings about their relationships.

Nearly 150 married couples, all 40 years old or younger, participated in this study, viewing 225 images on a computer screen every few days for six weeks. For half of the couples — the experimental group — the images included pictures of their romantic partners presented with positive images (e.g., photos of cute puppies or sunsets). The other half — the control group — saw pictures of their romantic partners linked with neutral images (e.g., photos of buttons). The researchers were interested in comparing how participants in the experimental and control conditions might differ on implicit and explicit measures of marital satisfaction.

It's an unconventional intervention, but an interesting idea: Why not retrain the brain a bit and use evaluative conditioning to increase positive feelings toward a partner? The findings showed that the conditioning worked: People who saw their partners paired with positive images later showed more positive automatic reactions towards their partners, and also reported more improvement in overall marital satisfaction over the course of the study than the control group.

Maybe this is justification for sprinkling your office desk with happy photos of your partner at your favorite vacation spot, holding a cute baby, or in your favorite restaurant. But as fascinating as these findings are, they in no way discount the importance of spousal interactions. The dynamics that emerge and are reinforced within a couple are very much at play in determining partner perceptions. Yet it could be helpful to know that practicing mental associations linking a partner with positive concepts can help the automatic attitudes of couples.

This might be a new tool that marriage counselors could use to support couples in difficult situations. Indeed, McNulty and colleagues' (2017) work was supported by the Department of Defense, in light of the challenges military couples and families experience when a partner is deployed.


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.  

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