By Dr. Mercola
Your brain works in mysterious ways, many of which we're only beginning to understand. As part of your day to day daily grind, your brain may actually run on autopilot much of the time. In fact, research suggests people may be mentally "checked out" — focused not on the present moment, the world around them or a particular given task, but rather on their own thoughts nearly half the time.1
This mental state of blasé, in turn, generally makes us unhappy, likely because our minds turn to unsettling thoughts, past arguments, worries or other stresses — events that are not currently happening but which color our world nonetheless, particularly if we let them. In the realm of relationships, your mind also likely has a tendency to associate your partner with either good or bad feelings.
Writing in the journal Psychological Science, researchers referred to study participants' immediate reactions about their spouses as "gut level feelings," noting that they influence the way you and your partner communicate on a daily basis. If your gut-level feelings about your spouse are positive, you'll be more likely to overlook minor issues and interact in a more lighthearted way. Negative gut-level feelings, however, may cause you to easily take offense and escalate arguments.
While every relationship requires work and commitment to maintain, marriages among military personnel undoubtedly face increased pressures compared to civilian couples. In fact, research published in the journal Armed Forces & Society revealed that participating in combat increases the risk of a marriage ending in separation or divorce by more than 60 percent.2
In an attempt to ease some of the stresses faced by military marriages, the Department of Defense asked Florida State University researchers to determine what could help, which led to an intriguing discovery that could benefit military and civilian unions alike.
Viewing Pictures of Your Spouse Alongside Positive Images May Improve Your Relationship
Florida State psychology professor and lead study author James McNulty and colleagues examined whether altering affective associations involving a relationship partner may ultimately change how satisfied a spouse is with their relationship. In other words, they based the study on associative learning, in which you probably feel good about your relationship if you associate it with positive experiences, and bad if the opposite is true.3
McNulty told Time, "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 [your] partner, you feel good."4 If thinking about your partner doesn't automatically invoke such positive vibes, as may be the case if your partner is deployed and you only talk amid stressful situations, might it be possible to create them — even if your partner is away?
To find out, researchers showed participants a stream of online photos every three days for a period of six weeks. For some participants, photos of their spouse would appear alongside neutral objects while for others, their spouse was pictured alongside positive images, such as a puppy, a child or even a tempting food. Positive words, such as "wonderful," were also pictured.
The surprisingly simple intervention worked. Those who saw their spouse pictured alongside positive photos increasingly viewed their spouse in a positive light and even reported greater relationship satisfaction. Writing in Psychological Science, researchers noted:5
"Spouses who viewed their partners paired with positive stimuli demonstrated more-positive automatic partner attitudes than did control spouses, and these attitudes predicted increased self-reported marital satisfaction over time.
These results provide novel evidence for a mechanism of change in relationship satisfaction, represent a step toward documenting how strong attitudes can evolve through passive exposure to information, and suggest novel avenues for relationship interventions."
Unhappy Relationships Pose a Risk to Your Health
Living in an unhappy relationship isn't only unsettling for your emotional health — it's dangerous for your physical health as well, making it all the more important to address any problems in your marriage early on. For instance, a negative marriage may indirectly influence your health by triggering depression or increasing self-sabotaging health habits. Directly, meanwhile, an unhappy marriage may influence your health via a number of mechanisms — cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, neurosensory and otherwise.6
"Negative and hostile behaviors during marital conflict discussions are related to elevations in cardiovascular activity, alterations in hormones related to stress, and dysregulation of immune function," researchers wrote in the journal Physiology and Behavior. "Using … conceptualizations of the physiological impact of chronic stress, we illustrate how physiological changes associated with marital functioning … have long-term implications for health outcomes," they noted, even being associated with morbidity and mortality.7
Further, couples who regularly engage in hostile behaviors during conflicts have wounds that heal 60 percent slower than more positive couples and have higher levels of proinflammatory cytokines that could accelerate the development of age-related diseases.8
What Works to Keep Marriages Happy?
The bottom line is that your level of relationship satisfaction very much matters when it comes to health and happiness, which is why interventions that may increase it are so important. Viewing photos of your spouse alongside furry puppies and kittens may be one worthwhile strategy, but there are many others as well. "The Seven Laws of Love" author Dave Willis highlights one you've probably heard before: Open the lines of communication.9
This refers not only to discussions about the big issues but also the mundane details of your day. What did you have for lunch? How was your morning workout? What else happened in the time you spent away from your spouse? Sharing those seemingly mundane details about your lunch or updates about how an appointment or meeting went help you to stay connected.
If you can't talk throughout the day, at least try to send a text message or two and make a point to reconnect at the end of your day. Another important aspect? Staying mentally monogamous. A recent U.K. survey revealed that close to half of professionals had the desire for a "work spouse," or a coworker in whom to confide.10
In some cases, people may be closer emotionally to their work spouse than to their actual spouse, setting the stage for emotional betrayal that can be as damaging, or more so, than a physical affair. Willis stated:
"Our fantasies will shape our realities. We need to by physically monogamous but we also need to be mentally monogamous. This one might be the most difficult task on the list because it takes constant vigilance, but it's well worth the effort."11
Proven Strategies to Increase Marital Satisfaction
There are steps you can take starting today that may make a difference in your "gut-level" feelings regarding your spouse. After you've been in a relationship for a while, for instance, simple acts like kissing may fall by the wayside. But, like hugging and sex, kissing prompts your brain to release a happy elixir of feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
This isn't only important for your happiness, it also may help to strengthen your relationship. Research revealed that people who spent six weeks making kissing a priority with their partners reported significant decreases in their levels of stress along with greater relationship satisfaction.12
And speaking of sex, couples who had sex once a week reported the highest levels of happiness in one study.13 In the 48 hours after sex, those who experience a stronger "sexual afterglow" also report higher levels of marital satisfaction, likely because it promotes bonding.14
Other strategies are more specific to your stage of life and individual circumstances. If you're a woman going through (or nearing) menopause, educating your spouse on the topic of menopausal health has been found to increase marital satisfaction for women.15 If you're in the early years of marriage, meanwhile, recognize that the seemingly trivial everyday moments you share together are pivotal in forming a strong relationship and bond.
Couples who reported greater "emotional capital," that is, an accumulation of shared positive moments, had lower reactivity to daily relationship threats than those with lower emotional capital, showing that making an effort to enjoy everyday moments together may be key in building and maintaining a happy marriage.16 Another important aspect is taking time to care for yourself, including getting regular exercise, eating right and sleeping enough.
These factors give you the basic building blocks for emotional and physical health, which will directly influence your relationships. Perhaps not surprisingly, one study even found that spouses were more satisfied with their relationships on days they slept for a longer period of time.17 In addition, take time to reassess your relationship and allow it to change and evolve over time.
While marital satisfaction generally tends to decline over time, this can be buffered by not only supporting joint and individual goals, but also by being flexible in your expectations of the relationship. According to Benjamin Karney, associate professor of social psychology and co-director of The Relationship Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles:18
"Over time, as specific aspects of the relationship change, with some parts becoming more positive and some becoming more negative, the couples who stay happiest overall are the ones who change their beliefs about what is important in their relationships accordingly, deciding that whatever aspects of the marriage have declined must not be so important after all."
A Testament to the Power of Your Mind
Above the power to potentially restore a long-distance or strained relationship, what the featured study also demonstrates is the power of your mind to influence your emotional state. If viewing feel-good photos alongside your spouse's may improve your marital satisfaction, the use of positive associations may also be useful in other realms of life.
Habits are also formed through associative learning, or associating a behavior and a stimulus (preferably positive). This can help you to improve your exercise routine, for instance, by associating your morning workout with the sight of your gym bag (packed the night before and left near your bedside).
Beyond this, your responses to scents are also largely "learned" as a function of the emotional context in which they were first experienced, and then the association influences your mood and behavior later in life. This is one reason why aromatherapy can be such a powerful influencer of your physical and emotional health. In virtually all walks of life, when times are feeling overwhelming or stressful, you can revert to positive associations to try to bring amount mental positivity and calm.
You might dab your favorite essential oil scent on your wrist to lessen anxiety or, as the study suggested, look up some cute animal photos online while you're doing a task you don't enjoy. Coming full-circle, the more positivity you add to your life, the more this will transcend to your relationships, making it easier to experience loving feelings toward your romantic partner.