Forget Marriage Counseling—Buy a Magnet

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Never underestimate the power of a metaphor.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: David Mulder/Flickr)

Is your romantic relationship growing a little stale? Well, you might want to employ a few toys.

No, not those kinds of toys. I’m talking about miniature building tiles, or any other magnetic blocks.

Recently published research finds briefly manipulating magnets leads to feelings of greater satisfaction and intimacy with one’s romantic partner.

“Metaphors are not mere linguistic ornaments,” a research team led by psychologist Andrew Christy of Texas A&M University writes in the online journal PLoS One. “They constrain and influence cognition in meaningful ways.”

The first of the researchers’ two studies featured 120 Texas A&M students, nearly all of whom were currently in a romantic relationship. All were first asked to perform a simple physical activity (described to them as a “mental break”) in which they repeatedly brought two blocks together for one minute.

“Metaphors are not mere linguistic ornaments.”

For one-third of participants, the magnetized blocks attracted one another; for another third, they repelled one another. For the final third, they were not magnetized.

Afterwards, all filled out a survey in which they were presented with statements such as “I feel a great deal of sexual desire for my partner” and “I can only share my deepest thoughts and feelings with my partner.” They responded to each on a seven-point scale, from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

The researchers report “indicators of relationship quality were elevated” among those whose blocks attracted one another compared to those in the other two conditions.

The second study was similarly structured, except no repellant blocks were used, and the 150 participants also filled out “a nine-item measure of romantic thought accessibility.” The researchers found playing with the magnetized blocks not only “enhanced participants’ perceptions of satisfaction, attraction, and commitment in their romantic relationships,” but also “enhanced perceptions of emotional intimacy.”

“The metaphoric association between magnetic attraction and romantic attraction is based on conceptual similarities between these ideas,” Christy and his colleagues note. “Our experience of being irresistibly drawn to a potential lover is similar to the inevitability of magnets’ attraction to one another.”

OK, but why did study participants feel better about their relationships once this metaphor was activated? The researchers suggest playing with the magnets may have simply brought the concept of romantic attraction into their consciousness. Alternatively, it “may have changed participants’ experience of romantic attraction in certain ways that led them to report greater satisfaction, intimacy, attraction, and commitment.”

Christy emphasizes that these are lab results, and they may or may not be replicated in the real world. But if you’re feeling isolated from one another, a little childhood play may be worth a try.

After all, a set of magnets costs a lot less than a session with a marriage counselor.