A new study conducted by a team of psychological scientists and published in Psychological Science, has discovered an intervention for renewing marital passion—pictures of puppies and bunnies.
Everyone knows that relationship/marital passion can’t be sustained at the same level as when the relationship was new. Even in happy marriages, satisfaction wanes as passion cools and in the happiest relationships, is replaced by comfort, companionship and a deeper bonding of trust and friendship.
So these researchers decided to explore ways to change the “immediate, automatic associations that come to mind when people think about their spouses.” They found that the source of a partner’s feelings is associated with positive affect which can come from the partner themselves or something unrelated. In this case, the researchers found that puppies and bunnies created that positive (and attractive) affect. This positive affect sustained over time created an overall positive association, which then led to positive thoughts and feelings in the partners. This is basic conditioning, but clearly it works.
Study participants included 144 married couples all under 40 and married for less than 5 years. Around 40% had children. The intervention designed by the researchers paired positive images (puppies and bunnies) with images of the spouses—and over time, this association led to an overall positive change in feelings and thoughts towards partners.
Before and after measures of relationship satisfaction were taken, and the changes in satisfaction were evident for those who were in the group that had the strongest exposure to the positive images coupled with the image of their spouse.
Even the researchers were a bit surprised at how well the intervention worked. The study’s lead even expressed skepticism that something so simple could be so positive. They noted that BEHAVIOR in a relationship is still a very important factor in setting automatic associations that are either positive or negative. However this kind of intervention using a positive association could be useful in future work with couples in counseling or going through serious relationship challenges, such as deployment of a military spouse.
As a therapist and wife, I can relate to these findings. I have two dogs who greet my clients when they come to counseling. It’s always amazing to watch the change in affect, even when clients come in suffering from severe depression, anxiety, and are at serious odds with one another. When one of my dogs was a puppy, it was even more pronounced. It is not uncommon for clients to ask if one or both dogs can stay in the room, which is always fine if they request it. In my role of spouse, I have seen the effect of a puppy on the relationship. One year after my spouse suffered a stroke that had brought a lot of stress to the relationship, we decided to get another dog. We chose a rescue puppy who we picked up on our anniversary. She has been a source of laughs, warmth, and a real mood brightener. She especially loves “Daddy,” and waits for him to get home each night. He in turn jokes that she and our other dog, Darla, are life savers. Our relationship has felt lighter and more positive as well.
So if you are going through a bad day, your relationship is strained and off track, or you just want to get some passion back—try watching a film about animals, especially cute and fuzzy ones. Or visit a shelter and play with some of the animals there. If your life allows for it, consider getting a rescue animal to love and nurture and who will offer a 200+ return on anything you invest. There is just something about animals that brings out the happy kid in all of us.