The Scientific Secret to Rekindling Your Relationship Is Simpler Than You Think


If you’re in a happy marriage, you’re in luck because you’re likely to live longer, smoke less, exercise more, and have a lower risk of cancer, heart attack, and dementia, according to science. If you’re unhappily married, you don’t just miss out on these benefits, but you’re also actually more susceptible to illness, including heart disease and circulatory problems. No wonder there’s so much literature out there on how how to make your marriage happier. This notion inspired a group of researchers to hypothesize that spouses may be able to improve their marriage if they simply change the way they think about one another. The resulting study, published in the journal Psychological Science, not only confirms this theory, but shows that how to rekindle a relationship could be as simple as looking at pictures of puppies paired with images of one’s spouse.

The photo pairing strategy, called “evaluative conditioning,” holds that people learn to like (or dislike) things based on what they come to associate with those things. For the study, author James K. McNulty, PhD, Professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida State University, and his colleagues recruited 144 married couples (all under 40 and married fewer than five years) and evaluated their marital happiness. Every three days for a period of six weeks, each participant saw a stream of images that included photos of his or her spouse paired with either something positive (in this case an image of puppy or the word “wonderful”), or something neutral (e.g., a button). Researchers observed the participants’ immediate reactions, and then reevaluated their marital happiness several times over the eight weeks that followed.

What the data revealed is that the people in the “positive” image group immediately showed more positive reactions to their spouse than those in the “neutral” group. More important, those immediate reactions predicted their attitudes toward their spouses and their level of marital satisfaction over the eight-week observation period that followed. The upshot: pictures of puppies and bunnies are an unconventional intervention for helping a marriage maintain its spark.

Dr. McNulty and his colleagues are not saying that cute puppy pictures will save a dysfunctional, unhappy marriage. They are simply offering a brief and rather simple answer to the often-asked question of how to reignite passion in a marriage, especially when spouses are separated by long distances, as with military couples. In fact, Dr. McNulty told Reader’s Digest, “The research was actually prompted by a grant from the Department of Defense—I was asked to conceptualize and test a brief way to help married couples cope with the stress of separation and deployment.”

But how to rekindle a relationship with someone who does not have positive associations with puppies or bunnies? Not to worry. Dr. McNulty believes the benefits demonstrated in the study would likely be even stronger if people were to choose their own positive images. Eventually, he says, “that would make for an ideal procedure,” and he hopes at some point to secure funding to test that dynamic.

In the meantime, if you’d like to try it with your own spouse, here are some photos of adorable doggies doused in water and some funny photos of dogs and cats to get you started.