Time to click through your old Facebook albums: In long-term relationships, merely looking at pictures of your partner can increase your infatuation, attachment and marital satisfaction, according to new research published in the Journal of Psychophysiology.
“We know that love feelings typically decline over time in long-term relationships and that declining love feelings are a common reason for breakups,” study author Sandra Langeslag, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and director of the Neurocognition of Emotion and Motivation Lab, told HuffPost.
Langeslag and her team wanted to see if there was some way to bring the thrill back to once-romantic partnerships. To do that, they recruited 25 mostly hetero- married people for this study: Twenty-four participants had an opposite-gender spouse, and one female participant had a same-sex spouse. On average, the participants had known their partners for 11.9 years.
To get some background on the couples and collect the controlled data, each person was asked how they’d rate their current infatuation levels and attachment to their spouse, how long they’d known the partner, how long they’d been romantically involved and how long they’d been married.
Each person also completed an assessment of their marital satisfaction and love regulation. (In social science jargon, “love regulation” is how we use behavioral or cognitive strategies to boost the intensity of our feelings. For instance, in a relationship that you want to go the distance, you may consciously choose to have positive thoughts about the other person or make a point to try something new together regularly.)
Next, the researchers had the participants view pictures of their spouse along with pleasant and neutral pictures while their brain activity was recorded. (The pleasant pictures showed strangers smiling or doing something nice, like hiking or petting an animal. The neutral pictures showed strangers engaged in mundane activities, such as grocery shopping or working on a computer.)
Some of the spouse pictures and pleasant pictures were preceded by emotional regulation prompts, such as, “Think of one good personality trait of your spouse,” and “This man is fulfilling his dream of hang gliding.”
As the pics were shown, the participants used sliders to indicate how infatuated with their spouse they felt, how attached to their spouse they felt and how satisfied with their marriage they felt.
In the end, Langeslag and her team found that viewing pictures of the spouse increased infatuation, attachment and marital satisfaction compared with viewing pleasant or neutral pictures.
In addition, a pattern of electrical brain activity known as the late positive potential (LPP) was most positive in response to spouse pictures, indicating that “participants had more motivated attention to a spouse than pleasant pictures.”
“People sometimes think that it’s not possible to control your feelings when it comes to love, but this study shows that looking at pictures of your partner does increase your affection for them and relationship satisfaction,” Langeslag told HuffPost.
Langeslag said the reverse is true, too; her previous research showed thinking negatively about a partner/ex-partner while looking at photos of them decreases love feelings, which may be helpful when coping with heartbreak.
The researcher thinks her current findings may be most beneficial to long-term couples and long-distance couples needing an affection boost when they’re not together.
“Unlike something like couples therapy, you don’t need your partner present to do this,” she said.
Other studies have highlighted the power of romantic nostalgia and the role positive recall plays in the functioning of long-term relationships.
A 2022 study found that romantic nostalgia is positively associated with greater relationship commitment, satisfaction and closeness.
Instead of pictures, the researchers in that study asked participants in long-term relationships to either write about a nostalgic experience they’d had with their partner or listen to a song that made them feel nostalgic about their relationship. Others wrote about a mundane experience they’d had or listened to a song they liked but didn’t associate with their relationship.
Comparing the two groups, the researchers found that those primed to experience nostalgia felt closer, more committed and more loving toward their partner. They were also more satisfied with their overall relationship.
“These are easy strategies that could help people stabilize their marriages, especially if love feelings have been on the decline,” Langeslag said.
Eager to browse through some old pics of your partner now? If you still have Facebook, the app conveniently groups all your interactions (photos, conversations) with a person under the “see friendship” button on their profile. (We apologize in advance for making you read all the overly earnest wall posts you sent to your spouse during the crush phase of the relationship. For love, the cringe is worth it.)