Study: To Revive Marital Spark, Look at Cute Animals

Two dogs wearing sunglassesPeople who see images of their spouse paired with positive images, including those of cute animals, can improve their marital satisfaction, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science.

The study draws upon theories of conditioning, like those used in behaviorist Ivan Pavlov’s famous studies of dogs. Conditioning pairs stimuli to create an automatic association. Pavlov, for example, could get dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell by first pairing the bell with food. When he removed the food, the dogs had developed a conditioned association between the bell and food, so they automatically salivated in response to the bell even when no food was present.

Cute Animals: Shortcut to Marital Bliss?

The study included 144 married couples younger than age 40 who had been married for less than five years. Participants averaged about 28 years old, and less than half (40%) had children.

Each couple completed several surveys to measure marital satisfaction. They also completed lab-based tests to assess their automatic associations with their spouses every two weeks for eight weeks.

Each partner also viewed a series of images every three days for six weeks. The series included images of their spouse. One group always saw the spouse paired with positive images, such as words like “wonderful” and cute puppies. The other group only saw the spouse paired with neutral images, such as a button.

Participants who saw positive images paired with their spouse’s photo also had more automatic positive associations with their partner in the lab test. These automatic associations correlated with an increase in marital satisfaction. This suggests conditioning can create more positive associations with a partner, potentially improving marriage quality.

New Strategy for Marriage Counseling

The authors of the study suggest this intervention could be one strategy for addressing automatic attitudes in marriage, particularly automatic negative associations. They point out that positive interactions between spouses are the most significant predictor of automatic associations and marital satisfaction. For couples trapped in negative patterns or in long-distance relationships, however, the study offers a strategy that could improve outcomes in marriage or relationship counseling.


  1. How viewing cute animals can help rekindle marital spark. (2017, June 19). Retrieved from
  2. Mcnulty, J. K., Olson, M. A., Jones, R. E., & Acosta, L. M. (2017). Automatic associations between one’s partner and one’s affect as the proximal mechanism of change in relationship satisfaction: Evidence from evaluative conditioning. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797617702014

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  • Sully

    June 28th, 2017 at 4:18 PM

    awww so true!

  • Mary

    June 29th, 2017 at 2:14 PM

    At first glance we might think that this is a little too simplistic. But I tell you, whenever I see my husband interacting with our cute grandkids and remembering how he was with our children those are the things that automatically remind me of just how much I love him.
    There is something about him and those images of him with them that makes me very content and happy.

  • lena

    June 30th, 2017 at 6:33 AM

    While I do think that this is likely a strategy that could work for some couples with surface problems
    But when those marital troubles run deep this might be a little bit of a simplistic approach

  • Trish

    July 3rd, 2017 at 2:27 PM

    Sweet sentiment, but talking to your mate would probably work better in the long run

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