As anyone who’s been partnered or married awhile can attest, it can feel, over time, like you’ve morphed into a two-headed, multi-limbed hydra. Yet, while functioning within all this perceived oneness, the quips and quirks of your longtime partner can, at various junctures in your union, really work your damn nerves. This is because, though you share a love and a soul and maybe even a family, you remain within the confines of your own skin, with your own desires and needs and thought processes that, one way or another, demand to be heard above the din of “we.”
The pressures of everyday life — especially the responsibilities of children — can certainly douse water on the home fires over time: A 2016 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family revealed (obviously) that parents share a lot less couple time than nonparents, and those in the study were happier and less stressed when they had that couple time as opposed to when they were apart.
How are long-term couples supposed to keep the love alive, so to speak? A team of psychological scientists from Florida State University (FSU) just discovered an unexpected answer — and it may lie in those images of cute puppies and bunnies that clog up your Facebook feed.
The team at FSU wanted to figure out if changing affective associations with a relationship partner through what they call “evaluative conditioning,” or learning to like or dislike something because of its perceived link with a consequence, could then lead to more positive feelings about the relationship. Married couples were asked to look at a short stream of pictures, including pictures of their partner, which were paired with — you guessed it — either cute pix of animals or less appealing subject matter, once every 3 days for 6 weeks. Wouldn’t you know it, the couples who looked at pictures of their partners paired with positive stimuli were feeling more positive about their partners than those who were forced to see their partners intermingled with negative stimuli. In conclusion, the scientists believe this result proves how our attitudes toward others can change through “passive exposure to information, and suggest novel avenues for relationship interventions.”
Does this mean couples therapy will eventually involve flash cards with puppies on them? Probably not, but it may provide proof that positive associations, or even reminders of why we fell in love in the first place, can help realign our relationships.
Your brain stimulates the release of happy chemicals (dopamine) when you see someone you really love.
How? It has a lot to do with how the brain works when presented with various stimuli. Consider the results of another study, which focused on understanding the brain function of people who’d experienced “long-term intense romantic love.” Scanning their brains for activity when presented with images of their long-haul loved ones, those subjects reporting intense, long-term romantic love showed activity in response to images of their partners in the dopamine-rich regions of the brain, inspiring feelings of reward-processing and motivation. In layman’s terms, your brain stimulates the release of happy chemicals (dopamine) when you see someone you really love. Or, long-term love literally gets you high on happy. That said, it seems that images of your loved one and the memories associated with them can help keep those happy chemicals flowing through the good times and the bad.
Further proof that love, even in its early stages, has a super significant impact on your brain function: those happy chemicals induced by thoughts of your romantic partner can even reduce feelings of physical pain. A 2010 study published in the science journal PLOS aimed to track the euphoria of early love by showing their subjects images of the loved one and capturing their brain’s response via neuroimaging — kind of like an early stage version of the above experiment, except they added a negative stimulus that caused pain to see how their subjects would react. Scientists found that dopamine/reward systems in the brain were so stimulated by these images, the subjects felt less physical pain and substantially, to boot.
Others might argue the ultimate secret to a long-lasting relationship is just hanging on for dear life and learning to love the person your partner has become. Ada Calhoun, author of Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give, crafted her tome after a poignant New York Times Modern Love column she wrote. Recently featured in a segment on the TODAY, Calhoun says transforming, as a person, during a long-term marriage is inevitable. “People spring changes on you. They gain and lose 100 lbs. They get a totally new career. You have a kid that has a disability. You make the best plans you can and then life happens to you. Part of making it through the middle of marriage is just holding on and underreacting to problems,” she said.
It seems images of your loved one and the memories associated with them can help keep those happy chemicals flowing through the good times and the bad
Also featured on this segment of TODAY is the author Dani Shapiro, who wrote Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, a book that recounts the highs, lows and secrets of her 20-year union. When asked by Today what her secret was, Shapiro replied that it wasn’t about remembering the person you married, or associating them with positive images, but instead respecting the person they’ve become over time and how they’ve impacted you as a separate human being. She said, “That sense of honoring who you are together over the passage of time, like a fragile chain of paper dolls, in a long marriage, all the selves you’ve ever been together, I think, continue to be alive inside of you, but you continue to transform and change. So, honoring that.”
Either way, remembering all the reasons you fell in love with your partner certainly can’t hurt. And, according to science, it might even (literally) help to ease any growing pains.