Feb. 5, 2013 at 3:54 PM ET
Could a little homework help save your marriage? Researchers in Chicago think so. They found that couples who spent just seven minutes every few months writing short essays about their recent fights reported being less unhappy a year later than similar couples who didn’t do the assignments.
The approach was simple – each couple was asked to reconsider a recent argument from the perspective of a neutral well-wisher.
“Spending 21 minutes a year reappraising conflict appears to yield a spectacular return on investment,” the team at Northwestern University concluded in their report, to be published in the journal Psychological Science.
The researchers point out that the writing assignment didn’t improve anyone’s marriage – but it helped slow the general decline in happiness that marks many, if not most, marriages over time.
“It doesn’t make them fight less often and it doesn’t make that fight less severe. What is does is it makes them less upset about the fights that they have,” said Eli Finkel of Northwestern University, who led the study.
“It was a really minimalist, easy-to-do intervention.”
The study involved 120 couples who volunteered after seeing newspaper ads for the study. They were all taking part in a much larger study that required them to attend workshops and fill out regular questionnaires about their love, intimacy, trust and in which they also described recent quarrels. They'd been married anywhere from a few months to 52 years, but on average had been married about 10 years.
Over the first year of the study, everyone showed some decline in their marital happiness.
Starting the second year, half the couples were randomly chosen to answer three extra questions online. Finkel estimates it should have taken about seven minutes to do, and the assigned couples did every four months – or three times each.
Here are the three questions:
1. Think about the specific disagreement that you just wrote about having with your partner. Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who sees things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it?
2. Some people find it helpful to take this third party perspective during their interactions with their romantic partner. However, almost everybody finds it challenging to take this third party perspective at all times. In your relationship with your partner, what obstacles do you face in trying to take this third partner perspective, especially when you’re having a disagreement with your partner?
3. Despite the obstacles to taking a third party perspective, people can be successful in doing so. Over the next four months, please try your best to take this third party perspective during interactions with your partner, especially during disagreements. How might you be most successful in taking this perspective in your interactions with your partner over the next four months? How might taking this perspective help you make the best of disagreements in your relationship?
At the end of the second year, half the couples indicated they were even less satisfied in their marriages than before. But the couples who answered just the three extra questions didn’t show the same decline, Finkel says.
That said, they didn’t get any happier, either. “Although the intervention preserved marital quality over time, it did not increase it,” Finkel’s team wrote.
So how might this apply to real-life couples – the kind who don’t volunteer to spend hours in marriage-counseling studies? “It’s probably worth trying,” Finkel says.
“Marital satisfaction tends to decline a bit over time and if we don’t do anything, that is probably likely to happen in our own marriage. But you can spend seven minutes every four months and maybe stop that from happening.”