Why a puppy could be the answer to a happy marriage

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty 

It might seem ridiculous to think that looking at a puppy could improve your marriage, however the results of a recent study, suggest that there could well be something in it.

Almost 150 couples in the study were divided into two groups. For six minutes every three days, some viewed the positive images followed by photos of their spouse - a sweet baby, appetising food or a fluffy animal. The other group viewed neutral images - a button, a phone - alongside pictures of their partners. By the six week mark, the first group reported feeling more content in their partnership than the second group.

If it sounds a little silly, then you'll find that even the lead author - James McNulty of Florida State University - agrees with you. 

"I had similar skepticism myself, just based on my own experiences and existing theory of relationships," he told TIME.

However the study had a deeper objective; McNulty and his research team were given the task by the Department of Defense to see if there were methods by which deployed military personnel and their spouses, could improve their partnerships in a time of extreme stress and isolation from each other.

TIME mentions a study that suggests men who are combat veterans are 62% more likely to be divorced, so it's a pertinent point. Find the methods that improve life partnerships and make outcomes better for everyone.

McNulty and his team decided to start with gut feelings. "People's gut level feelings about their partners are very important," he says, adding that it's a tricky area to navigate with subjects. "People are not inclined to admit that, because they want to believe they're with the right partner. But our research was showing that if you can capture that gut level feeling it seems to be an important predictor of relationships."

It's a place to start, but to evaluate further, an in depth look at associative learning was also necessary. 

"If you're in a relationship and you have a lot of great experiences with your partner, you learn to associate your partner with those experiences and when you see their partner, you feel good," McNulty states. This is also true of negative associations, and a common marriage therapy tool is for couples to try something new together, to reprogram their associative reactions.

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"It turns out the brain doesn't really know the difference between some types of associations," he says, "...and so we can kind of trick our minds into associating our partners with positive feelings." Most importantly, the increased positive feelings about their spouses resulted in a broader happiness in the marriage.

McNulty acknowledges the limitations of the study. Pinning a photo of a kitten next to your significant other is not a guaranteed happily-ever-after, rather, the findings are a segue into further research on the topic.

How long would the effects take to wear off? Data was only gathered for two weeks after the study ended. And what if kitten photos were pitched to the cat lovers rather than puppies to the dog-avoidant? Tailoring to personal taste could be yet another factor. Also, when a marriage is in the throes of a breakdown, or has suffered critical damage, could this method still work to improve things?

Give it a go at home. You've got nothing to lose and everything to gain.