New research shows that classical conditioning (think Pavlov’s dog) can help us fall back in love with our partners.

kitten in street

Photo by Aidan Meyer on Unsplash

Why do you think you like your partner?

Is it because they’re good looking? Is it because they’re nice to you? Is it because they do that thing in bed that makes you scream uncontrollably?

Or could it be because you do or see pleasant things while they’re there?

The basic theories about relationship development and maintenance hold that it’s our behaviour that keeps our partners in love with us. Keep doing nice things, they’ll keep loving you.

Except, experimentally, these theories don’t hold water. Attempt after attempt at showing a direct link between how we act and how happy we are in our relationship have failed to show it. Sure, behaviour does have an influence, especially at the beginning. But the many studies that show that relationships satisfaction goes down even without changes in the way partners act towards each other prove that these theories are missing something.

James McNulty, Michael Olson, Rachael Jones and Laura Acosta did an experiment where they had couples look at slideshows that paired photos of their partners with either positive (experimental group) or neutral (control group) pictures and words. They assessed relationship satisfaction and tested automatic partner attitudes (by asking questions with very quick responses so people don’t have time to think) for both groups.

They found that, in general, people in the experimental group not only had more positive automatic partner attitudes after the intervention–6 weeks of watching the slideshow every 3 days–but their relationship satisfaction also improved. All thanks to the power of classical conditioning.

How classical conditioning works

If you can’t remember your psych 101 class, here’s a little reminder about how classical conditioning works.

Think about an automatic reaction you have to things, like fear or attraction. Most of us naturally find snakes fearful and kittens cute. We have some automatic reactions for humans as well, but they are much more dependent on social cues like what they wear, how they act, how they talk, and so on.

The basic mechanism for classical conditioning is putting together things that create an automatic reaction (like a loud sound, from the famous Little Albert experiment) and things that are “neutral”, like a bunny (even though bunnies are super cute.) If you want to make someone be fearful of bunnies, you pair the bunny with something scary, like a loud noise. Over time, the person will come to link the bunny and the loud noise, and eventually they’ll be scared of the bunny without the loud noise at all.

Is love conditioning?

Fine, I get how this sounds. It’s super silly and seems ridiculous if you try to apply it to relationships. How can you condition me to love someone more?

First, it’s not really love we’re conditioning here. Love is a complex emotion that we’re not quite sure we understand, anyway. But you can condition positive responses and liking, just like you can condition people towards automatically associating Black people with crime, for example.

And, like it or not, there are a lot of ways in which we condition ourselves to like our partners. Take dating, for example. More than “getting to know you”, dating is about doing pleasant things with someone. Over time, we associate pleasant times with that person, meaning that just being with that person will make us feel good.

However, here’s the catch: conditioning is prone to a phenomenon called “extinction”. That’s when a conditioned reaction (like fearing the bunny) disappears because it’s been a while since the loud sound happened at the same time. Because the reaction is learned, rather than automatic, it needs to be maintained. When it isn’t, we forget, and the learned reaction goes away on its own.

How long has it been since you did something fun with your partner(s)? If you make a point of frequently doing the things that brought you together in the first place, that’s a good sign. But if you slowly let routine and life get in the way of maintaining your connection, you’re going to also lose the link you made between “fun” and “partner”; in other words, the conditioning will go into extinction, and you’ll fall out of love with your partner. Or at least, you’ll like them less.

DIY conditioning

So, the study by McNulty et al. tested whether people responded to classical conditioning when it came to liking their partners. If you pair things that are naturally pleasant, like kittens and puppies, to a photo of your partner smiling, will you actually like them (and the relationship) more, even though their behaviour towards you hasn’t changed?

The answer was a good enough yes to merit publication.

You don’t need to sit down to a slideshow of your partner(s) and cute animals to re-condition your love, though. (I’m not quite knowledgeable enough to understand the way these stimuli slideshows are built yet.) You can do it intentionally, by pairing things you love with the presence of your partner(s). I love food; I don’t mind eating alone (I often do), but I like when I eat with my partner. Is it because I like my partner, or is it because I like food? According to this theory, I like food, I pair food with partner, therefore I like partner.

If I were to work out with my partner, the opposite would happen: I hate working out, I pair working out with partner, therefore I hate partner. (The lesson: don’t do things you hate around people you love. It might make things worse.)

But you can’t do it just once. It needs to be a regular thing, otherwise you’ll face extinction again. You know, the whole “have a weekly date night” advice? That’s why it works. But you need to choose something fun, ideally something fun for both of you. That way, you’ll strengthen not only your emotional connection, but also your positive conditioning towards each other.

Good advice? Helpful information? Thank me with a coffee!