Strengthening Marital Attitudes to Decrease Suicidal Ideation

Thwarted social connection is a critical risk factor for suicidality, and several theoretical perspectives highlight the importance of interpersonal sources of affect to social connection. Given that marriage is an increasingly important source of social connection, we attempted to enhance  automatic spousal attitudes—conceptualized as spontaneously activated affective associations involving one’s spouse—and examined whether any such changes reduced suicidal thoughts.

First, we examined whether directly altering affective associations involving a relationship partner through evaluative conditioning can lead to changes in automatic partner attitudes. Married couples (N = 144) were asked to view a brief stream of images once every 3 days for 6 weeks. Embedded in this stream were pictures of the partner, which, according to random assignment of couples to experimental condition, were paired with either positive or neutral stimuli. Couples also completed measures of automatic partner attitudes and explicit marital satisfaction at baseline and once every 2 weeks for 8 weeks. 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 (see McNulty, Olson, Jones & Acosta, 2017).

Next, we examined whether these newly conditioned automatic spousal attitudes also predicted changes in suicidal thoughts over the course of the study. Indeed, the newly conditioned automatic spousal attitudes exhibited after the evaluative conditioning procedure predicted a reduced probability of suicidal thoughts 2 months later. This finding was published in a separate article along with two other studies demonstrating that automatic spousal attitudes predicted changes in suicidal ideation over the course of 1 year (see McNulty, Olson, & Joiner, 2019). 

McNulty, J. K., Olson, M. A., & Joiner, T. E., Jr. (2019, March 14). Implicit interpersonal evaluations as a risk factor for suicidality: Automatic spousal attitudes predict changes in the probability of suicidal thoughts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

McNulty, J. K., Olson, M. A., Jones, R. E., & Acosta, L. M. (2017). Automatic associations between one’s partner and one’s affect as the proximal mechanism of change in relationship satisfaction: Evidence from evaluative conditioning. Psychological Science, 28, 1031–1040.