I'll start with two facts of life that seem at odds. First, relationships-especially marriage and marriage-like partnerships-are good for us and good for our health. When you have a partner who supports you, encourages you, helps you be the best person you can be, and also has sex with you, this is about the most wonderful thing in the world.
I take that back-it is the most wonderful thing in the world.
Unfortunately, the second fact is that the quality (read: satisfaction, passion, trust, intimacy, etc.) of our relationships declines over time for just about everyone. Once you fall in love with someone and create an enduring bond, that bond starts to come apart. I don't mean to sound all doom and gloom here, but this is a well-replicated scientific finding. Even among happy couples, relationship quality declines in a systematic fashion over time.
Everyone who has a long-term partner nods their head like crazy when someone states the obvious: "Relationships require work." If you don't work hard to maintain the quality of your relationship, the glue keeping you together begins to weaken. Next thing you know, it's 10 years later and you're wondering how the hell things got so damn bad.
This second fact about relationships prompts obvious questions: What can we do to keep the passion alive? How can we prevent our relationship problems from worsening and becoming truly corrosive? One answer to this question, of course, is that you can go into therapy. This is all well and good if you have the time and the money, but what if you don't think your problems warrant therapy? Things aren't terrible, but they're not that great, either. What should we do now?
Luckily, there's a hot-off-the-presses new research study by Eli Finkel and colleagues at Northwestern University that gives us an excellent answer to this question. These researchers have invented a seven-minute writing intervention that stalls the natural decline of marital quality.
Here's how their study worked. One hundred twenty married couples (married an average of 11 years at the start of the study) completed an internet survey every four months for two years. At the end of the first year, half the couples were randomly assigned to a seven-minute conflict reappraisal intervention. (Reappraisal is fancy word for thinking differently.)
The researchers first asked half the people to write in detail about the most significant disagreement they had with their spouse in the prior four months. Then they asked these same people to think differently about the conflict and put those new thoughts into words. In particular, these people were asked to think about the disagreement as "a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved." In addition, the participants were asked to reflect on why it is hard to take a third-party perspective when they fight with their spouse and how they might be successful in the coming months in doing so.
One of the most maddening things about fights with our partners is that it is very hard (sometimes impossible?!) to see the fight from any perspective other than our own self-absorbed point of view. When we fight, we are often hurt and want to strike back. We want our opinions, feelings and thoughts to be known, and these wants prevent or block us from seeing the bigger picture in the disagreement. This is why a fight with your partner often feelings like a psychological trap from which there's no escape.
The beauty of the writing intervention is that it encourages people to get out of their own heads and to think about the relationship as a well-intentioned bystander. Once you do so, the intervention then instructs you to take that way of thinking forward into your next fight.
The participants assigned to this writing condition then completed two more sessions of the same writing at months 16 and 20, for a total of 21 minutes of writing. The results were profound. Couples who engaged in just 21 minutes of this conflict reappraisal writing showed less of a decline in marital quality over the second year of the study. The researchers also showed that people who did the writing were less distressed by their subsequent conflicts with their spouse, and this fact maintained their marital quality at a stable level over time.
Every single person in a serious romantic relationship should know about this research. Is your relationship worth seven minutes every four months? Of course it is. You can do this work at home, it's easy and likely fun as well. Most important: It can save your relationship. Go forth and reappraise!
- by David Sbarra, Ph.D.
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