Improving Marriages to Decrease Suicide Risk
Principal Investigator: 

Military service can be hard on a marriage, particularly for those service members who are posted away from home. Research has shown, for example, that serving lengthy deployments increases the risk of divorce and that the longer the deployment, the greater the risk of divorce. Furthermore, even those service members who stay married may find their relationships with their spouses to be strained and stressful.

Because research has shown that such interpersonal problems are closely linked with an increased risk of suicide, it seems likely that the high rates of marital disruption among service members and Veterans are playing some role in the high rates of suicide among these groups. And if this is indeed the case, then finding ways to strengthen service members’ marriages could help lessen the risk of suicide among them.

This is the rationale behind a study that has been carried out by a group of psychological researchers headed by James McNulty at Florida State University and Michael A. Olson at the University of Tennessee. With a novel, computer-based technique for strengthening relationships, their goal was to improve military marriages by helping the spouses feel more positive about each other and, ultimately, to develop a new tool for decreasing the risk of suicide among service members and Veterans.

The new method is based on adjusting what are known as “automatic attitudes.” These are feelings that a person experiences automatically and without conscious thought when encountering another person or a place or a thing. A picture of a spider, for example, might trigger a negative automatic attitude, while a beautiful landscape might elicit a positive automatic attitude. Similarly, a photograph of a threatening or disliked person may trigger a negative automatic attitude, while a picture of an attractive or liked person will generally bring about a positive automatic attitude. Previously, McNulty and Olson have shown that spouses who have more positive automatic attitudes toward their partners experience less steep declines in marital satisfaction over time, but as problems and stresses grow in a marriage—of the sort, for example, that service members on deployment often experience—spouses may develop more negative automatic attitudes toward one another.

To address this, McNulty and Olson turned to a method that had been shown to develop positive automatic attitudes in people without them even being consciously aware of it. The technique, called evaluative conditioning, influences a person’s feelings about something by associating that thing with other things that evoke either positive or negative feelings. For example, in an earlier study Olson and one of his colleagues had created more positive automatic attitudes toward black individuals among a group of white subjects by showing the subjects pairs of pictures, one of which showed a black person while the other was an image known to trigger positive feelings. These pairs of images were included in a large set of pairs of images, and the subjects were told the purpose of the study was something else altogether, so they were not aware of the manipulation, but their attitudes changed in ways that were noticeable to the researchers. Similarly, evaluative conditioning has been used to create negative attitudes toward alcohol consumption.

So McNulty and Olson put together a study to test whether evaluative conditioning can be used to improve spouses’ attitudes toward each other. They recruited 144 married couples, including a number in which one or both spouses were Veterans, to come into their lab and look at a long series of paired pictures on a computer screen, a task that they then repeated at home twice a week for six weeks. McNulty and Olson tested the participants to see if the process improved their automatic attitudes and even their self-reported marital satisfaction and suicidal ideation every two weeks for the next eight weeks.

This part of the project is now complete and the results indicate that evaluative conditioning can indeed improve automatic partner attitudes and thereby increase marital satisfaction and reduce suicidal ideation. Specifically, spouses who went through the process of viewing the series of paired pictures on computer screens twice weekly for six weeks experienced improved automatic partner attitudes relative to control spouses, which in turn increased self-reported marital satisfaction and reduced reports of suicidal ideation. A manuscript prepared by the researchers that describes these results is now under review.

Since the conditioning has been shown to be effective, the next steps will be to refine the procedure to be most effective and test it in a group that consists solely of service members and Veterans and make sure that it is effective for them as well. Ultimately, the hope is that this will lead to another tool to help improve the mental health and lower the suicide risk of Veterans and active members of the Armed Forces.

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