This One Thing Will Put The Spark Back In Your Relationship

November 7, 2017
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Can you trick yourself into being madly in love again? 

When I was in middle school, there was a kid in my class who never brushed her hair.

I sat behind her and tried to avert my eyes from her matted, tangled mane, dotted through with white flakes. Hygiene was a challenge for this poor girl; she didn’t smell so great, either, and never used a tissue when she needed one. My mother would have scolded her to “blow, don’t sniff.” I’m sorry to say it, but she was just gross.

There’s no reason for me to ever think of this girl now – she had no impact on my life, really. But anytime I come across someone with the same first name as her, a little shudder of revulsion runs down my spine. I’ll never be able to hang out with anyone with that name without remembering her tangled, grimy hair, and feeling a little bit grossed out.

Our brains are funny things. I’m constantly forgetting to call and update my insurance information, sign my daughter’s permission slips, and make a vet appointment for the cat; and yet, this classmate from 25 years ago is still fresh in my mind. Once our brains form an association, it’s tough to shake.

The smell of Final Net hairspray and stale cigarette smoke still takes me right back to a sleepover at my best friend’s house in fourth grade – we played Game of Life and had a séance – but I couldn’t begin to tell you what I did last Tuesday.

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Ummm…yeah? You’re probably thinking. What does any of that have to do with putting the spark back in my relationship?

A lot, actually. It all comes down to those associations our brains are so fond of making; and a little study involving baby animals and married couples…

Puppies, bunnies, and your relationship

In this study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers gathered 144 couples, all of whom had been married five years or less and were under the age of 40. They evaluated their overall happiness in their relationships, as well as their instinctive attitudes toward their partners. Then, over the course of six weeks, showed each of them a series of images, once every three days.

They showed the control group images of their partner, plus a neutral image or word. But in the test group, they showed pictures of their partners followed by pictures of baby animals or positive words (a puppy, a bunny, or the word “wonderful”, for example).

Throughout the six weeks, researchers kept surveying the participants about their attitudes toward their parters. The results? People in the test group, who viewed their spouse’s picture along with the baby animals and positive words, actually reported feeling warmer toward their partners, and subsequently happier in their marriages.

Even the researchers didn’t anticipate how easily people could be swayed by adorable puppies; the study’s lead author, James K. McNulty, PhD, admitted, “I was actually a little surprised that it worked. Just the idea that something so simple and unrelated to marriage could affect how people feel about their marriage, made me skeptical.”

Training your brain

Of course, there’s more to making your relationship work than just sliding a picture of a puppy in the photo frame next to a picture of your partner. But what we can learn from this study is that, just like Pavlov’s dogs (the ones who drooled when they heard a bell signaling dinnertime), we can trick our brains into have more positive associations with our partners, and therefore improve our relationships – and even put the spark back into a marriage that’s gone stale.

You can easily try this right now.

Look at a picture of your partner, and notice the first thing that comes to mind. Are you thinking about how he switched on the baseball game last night, when you were telling him about your stressful day at work? Do you get a knot in your stomach, replaying all the fights you’ve had? Do you instinctively feel bad when you think about them? If you do, rest assured that you’re not alone.

It’s a scientifically proven fact that negative events have more impact on our brains than positive ones. Relationship expert and psychologist John Gottman, PhD, says we need to have five positive interactions with our partners in order to outweigh just one negative interaction.

So, in order to change your associations with your partner, you’re going to want to build up plenty of positive memories to draw from. Hopefully, you already have a bank of them, but it’s always good to make more.

Make a list of all the wonderful times you’ve had with your SO – the first moment you knew you were in love, that time he surprised you with a romantic weekend trip, the way you felt on your wedding day.

Even small, everyday things matter: the feeling of his hand in yours, a kiss goodbye before work, the soothing sound of his voice right before you fall asleep. Several times a day, make a point of looking at your spouse (or his picture) and bringing up one of these positive memories. And if you’re still stuck for inspiration, start fresh and set a weekly date night to create new positive associations (these fun date night ideas are super cheap if you’re on a tight budget).

By consistently focusing on the good, and not dwelling on the bad (side note: overthinking kills romance), you’ll train your brain to associate your partner with happy feelings.

And hey, looking at pictures of cute animals while you’re at it can’t hurt, either.

Images via pexels.com and tumblr.com.

Comment: Do you have any little tricks you use to keep the fire burning with your partner?

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