While millions of couples spend hours trying to learn how to improve their marriages through books or therapy, one recent study found that sustaining a happy marriage may only take 21 minutes, a pencil and a piece of paper.
A Northwestern University study set to be published in “Psychological Science” later this year surveyed 120 married couples for two years about their relationship satisfaction, and asked them to describe their most significant recent arguments. During the second year, half of the couples were also asked to complete three seven-minute writing tasks — one task every four months — in which they wrote about the arguments they’d had in the preceding months from the perspective of a theoretical neutral third party who wanted the best for all involved. These couples were found to have greater relationship satisfaction than the couples who did not participate in the writing task.
Lead author Eli Finkel, a Northwestern psychology professor, talked with HuffPost Weddings about why this 21-minute writing task was so influential in sustaining marriage quality.
Where did you get the idea for this research?
We were inspired to do the work because we know that when people argue they tend to adopt their own perspective, and from your own perspective, it’s really easy to understand what it is your spouse is doing that’s so infuriating and why you are so justified in your anger. From a third-party perspective, it’s much easier to get a sense of the possibility that you might be coming off as kind of a jerk and your partner has a pretty compelling argument on his or her side as well. There was also a study in 2008 that asked people to recall an anger-inducing incident they had experienced and asked them to adopt a neutral third-party perspective, and that research showed the people were less angry and had less physiological reactivity.
Why did the writing task improve couples’ relationship quality so significantly?
On average, relationship quality, passion, etc. went down over time. What we found is that in year two, that decline continued among participants in the control condition, but among participants who were in the writing condition, that downward slope disappeared entirely. They were able to sustain their relationship satisfaction and passion over time, because it helped people avoid the distress that frequently comes with conflict. What’s clear from previous research and our own work is that it’s not the existence of conflict, but how people manage conflict that can have a pretty corrosive effect on relationship well-being. What we were able to do was not reduce the amount of conflict, but the amount of distress they experienced about the conflict and that helped them sustain their relationship satisfaction and passion over time.
How did adopting a neutral third-party perspective shape the way couples thought about their past conflicts?
When asked about the third party perspective, they would sometimes be able to develop new insight into the broader context for the fight. So rather than being so immersed in thinking about the fight from their own perspective, they were a little bit better at adopting a broader perspective and realizing that a third-party person might say, “In a relationship that is generally functioning well, does it make sense to be this frustrated about one little thing?” We also had an additional component of the writing task in which they had to think about obstacles they might confront in adopting this third-party perspective…and what they might do to overcome these obstacles. For this part of the writing task they tended to write, “When I’m angry I find it difficult to adopt a third party perspective, and maybe what I can do in the future is to take account of the fact that I’m feeling angry, and take a minute away to gain a better perspective.”
We certainly found some people who said this neutral third party would think I’m totally right and my wife is totally wrong. My guess is that they benefitted less from the intervention than other people. There are fights that are more driven by one person or another, so I don’t want to imply that all fights are exactly 50/50. And the procedure of the writing task doesn’t require that. It just requires that you try to adapt an external but kind-hearted perspective on the whole conflict.
How do you explain the fact that the couples still had the same number of disagreements, but those in the writing condition ended up happier than the other couples?
Everybody has disagreements. If you’re married to somebody, your life is tied up with their life in so many ways, it’s impossible to avoid conflict. So we don’t have any illusion that we can stop people from having conflicts. What we think we can do is make them a little more rational, a little better at adopting the other person’s perspective, and consequently, everyone’s less upset about the conflict, and consequently they have happier and more passionate marriages.
Passion and intimacy also improved as a result of the experiment. How do you explain this effect?
We can’t be totally sure how people get from constructive conflict resolution to greater sexual passion, but we know that it’s difficult to sustain passion over time. One thing that can stand in the way of passion is when you feel frustrated or angry with your partner. So one way in which this intervention may have promoted sexual passion in the marriage is by helping to keep the marriage focused on a positive emotional keel instead of a negative emotional keel.
Is this writing task something couples should consider doing themselves?
People often don’t think to intervene in the marriage. Frequently they don’t stop until the marriage is on the rocks, and then they seek marital therapy. But what’s the point of waiting until then? So yes, I think this is a task that takes 21 total minutes a year, takes $0 and you can do it from your own home. What possible argument could there be for not trying out whether this could help your own marriages? Get out a piece of paper, and write now. Try to start thinking about conflict in the marriage from a more positive third party perspective. There’s a good chance that you’ll do some real good in your marriage.
What’s the biggest lesson you hope people learn from this study?
One lesson from this work is that it probably doesn’t make sense to treat your marriage as if it’s something that will just work itself out without any attention. We pay lots of attention to all sorts of things that matter to us, yet many people have a mentality that marriage is something that falls into place. And that’s not really that realistic. Marriage is immensely satisfying when it goes well, it’s immensely important, and it certainly requires a little cultivation especially when we’re talking about something that’s so easy to do. I would encourage you, if you’re in a happy marriage, don’t take it for granted. Take a little bit of time to see what you can do to help sustain that good marriage.