For couples who already tag each other in puppy and pizza photos on Instagram throughout the day, congratulations! You’re that much closer to having a happy marriage. Professors at Florida State University were tasked by the Department of Defense to try and strengthen deployed military personnel’s marriages through research, since being physically separated from their partners isn’t easy.
The lead author of the paper, psychology professor James McNulty, and his team chose to find out whether people can change their gut feelings about their partner via associative learning. (For example, you can’t stand a sweater because it’s from your least favorite aunt, or you absolutely love chocolate cake because your mom makes it for your birthday every year.)
McNulty applied this psychological theory to the study: “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,” McNulty tells TIME. The same applies to not-so-fun experiences and memories with your partner—and especially with military personnel, as the distance and stress of their job can link negative thoughts to their partner.
Experiencing fun dates, vacations and experiences with your significant other cancels out the idea of a routine, stale married life—and according to McNulty, “The brain doesn’t really know the difference between some types of associations, and so we can kind of trick our minds into associating our partners with positive feelings.”
To do so, the Florida State team got 144 married couples (their average age was 28, they had all been married for less than five years and 40 percent had children) to look at an online photo stream for six minutes every three days for six weeks, making a note whenever a happy image came up, like a wedding photo—which was a great way to see if their brain could feel more positive toward their husband or wife. One group also viewed images of their spouse alongside a positive photo, like a puppy, appetizing food or a cute child. Another group viewed images of their spouse alongside a neutral image.
At the conclusion of the study, the group who viewed positive images had more positive spouse associations and a better quality of marriage (for up to two weeks).
“I was actually a little surprised that it worked,” McNulty says. “All the theory I reviewed on evaluative conditioning suggested it should, but existing theories of relationships, and just the idea that something so simple and unrelated to marriage could affect how people feel about their marriage, made me skeptical.”
Of course, you should like your spouse already, but this study reinforced the brain to give even more positive associations with your spouse, leading to a happier marriage. So all in all, while looking at images of cute puppies together can’t exactly save a marriage, it can sure help bolster it!