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Puppy Pics May Add Spark to Struggling Relationships

A new study asked couples to look at photo streams that paired images of their spouses with pictures of pooches

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There are few things in life that induce as much joy as photos of adorable dogs (just try to resist these 18 pups that are actually beautiful weirdos). And according to a new study, those warm, fuzzy feelings we get looking at puppy pics may be able to help salvage relationships that have hit a slump.

As Sarah Gibbens reports for National Geographic, a team of researchers found that people who were shown images of positive things—like puppies—next to photos of their partners developed more positive associations with said partners. According to the study, published in Psychological Science, the same effect did not take place among control groups.

The seeds of the study were planted when the Department of Defense contacted Jim McNulty, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida, and asked him to conceptualize a way to help married couples withstand the strain of long deployments.  

McNulty was intrigued by research suggesting that marriage satisfaction often declines over time, even when couples do not dramatically change their behavior. So rather than trying to target the way couples act, McNulty and his team of researchers sought to change the way they think about one another. More specifically, the team tried to improve the automatic associations that people make when they think about their partners.

“One ultimate source of our feelings about our relationships can be reduced to how we associate our partners with positive affect,” McNulty explained in a statement. “[T]hose associations can come from our partners but also from unrelated things, like puppies and bunnies.”

Researchers studied 144 couples who had been married for less than five years. The couples were divided into two groups. Over the course of six weeks, one group was asked to look at a stream of photos every three days. Slipped into that photostream was a series of paired images of their partner with pictures of happy things, like puppies and bunnies, and positive words, such as "wonderful." When the other group looked at the photo stream, they saw their partners juxtaposed with neutral images, like a photo of a button.

Every two weeks for eight weeks total, researchers showed the couples a series of faces, one of which belonged to their partner, and subsequently asked them to respond to positive and negative words. This test, Sabrina Rojas Weiss explains in Yahoo Beauty, sought to measure the couples’ “automatic partner attitudes”—their immediate and subconscious reactions to their spouses. The couples also filled out three surveys rating the quality and satisfaction of their relationship.

Overall, the happy pictures seemed to work. Couples who were exposed to positive images next to their partner’s face displayed more automatic positive associations with their loved one than those who were exposed to neutral images. “More importantly,” the statement notes, “the intervention was associated with overall marriage quality: As in other research, more positive automatic reactions to the partner predicted greater improvements in marital satisfaction over the course of the study.”

The experiment was based on the theory of evaluative conditioning, which suggests that our attitudes can change with exposure to positive or negative stimulus. But McNulty was still somewhat taken aback by the results.

"I was actually a little surprised that it worked," he said, according to the statement. "All the theory I reviewed on evaluative conditioning suggested it should, but existing theories of relationships, and just the idea that something so simple and unrelated to marriage could affect how people feel about their marriage, made me skeptical."

Of course, pictures of puppies and bunnies are not a cure-all for struggling relationships. Interactions between spouses, the authors of the study note, are still the most important factor in creating positive associations.

But the findings suggest that for couples in certain situations—like long-distance relationships—puppy pics may just be the thing restore that puppy love.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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