FSU social psychologist awarded U.S. Army grant to study military couples

| Thu, 09/02/21
Jim McNulty and Andrea Meltzer
From left, Jim McNulty, a Department of Psychology professor and director of the department’s social psychology program, and Andrea Meltzer, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology.

America’s military servicemembers are often asked to put their personal lives on hold to serve their country at home and abroad, a sacrifice that can strain marital relationships. Now, a Florida State University social psychologist has received a grant from the U.S. Army to investigate interventions that may help these families cope with the stressors inherent to military life.

Jim McNulty, a Department of Psychology professor and director of the department’s social psychology program, has been awarded an $869,000 grant from the U.S. Army to determine whether a computer application-based intervention technique can protect married couples dealing with relational threats such as physical separation and increased stress, which have been linked to notable marital disruption. Associate Professor of Psychology Andrea Meltzer will serve as a co-investigator for the research.

“I am both honored and excited to receive this grant,” McNulty said. “My main goal is to help military couples maintain satisfying marriages despite all the stresses that accompany military life.”

The project points to large bodies of research documenting the benefits of healthy, long-term close relationships, such as marriage, to meeting health and job performance goals. These parallels suggest that servicemembers’ marital well-being should have significant impacts on their mental and physical health and their career performance.

“Maintaining a satisfying marriage can be tough for anyone, and many of the duties involved with serving, such as prolonged physical separations, can make marriage even tougher for military personnel,” McNulty said. “Family functioning is critical to mental and physical health, and members of our military face challenges that threaten family functioning. I’m hoping we learn something that will allow us to make things easier for them.”

Researchers assume that an individual’s automatic attitudes toward their partner, in other words, the immediate positive or negative affective response they have upon encountering them, is a key predictor of marital functioning, McNulty explained. Such automatic attitudes are critical because they are activated spontaneously — without intention, effort or conscious deliberation — and automatically guide an individual’s attention toward their partner, perception and categorization of their partner, and their approach or avoidance responses toward or away from the partner.

McNulty’s team previously published research in the journal Science that demonstrated that these automatic partner attitudes predicted couples’ marital satisfaction across four years.

McNulty said automatic partner attitudes are typically built through repeated emotional experiences that come to be associated with the partner, and military personnel who are physically separated from their partners have fewer opportunities to build and strengthen positive associations. Even among military couples who are not physically separated, stress associated with military service can transfer to the partner and limit positive associations.

Given that automatic partner attitudes are essentially a summary of remembered associations with the partner, McNulty said, one way to directly strengthen the attitudes is through evaluative conditioning — simple pairings of one’s partner with positive stimuli — which is the aim of the application the researchers are testing.

The project will involve a large longitudinal study of U.S. Navy sailors and their partners to test a computerized intervention designed to help them “feel good” about one another, McNulty said. The study will require various forms of online participation a few times per week over the course of about two months.

“With this new funding from the U.S. Army, Professor McNulty will deploy an intervention to mitigate the extreme stress military service can place on a marriage,” said Department of Psychology Chairman Frank Johnson. “The intervention is the result of years of dedicated study by the McNulty Lab. It is a tremendous example of how the research findings of social psychologists can be applied to vital issues that are in our national interest.”

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