It seems like everywhere you turn, professionals are trying to make your life easier. Medical doctors discover breakthrough treatments for illnesses. Engineers design revolutionary new gadgets and devices. And psychologists devise simple and ingenious activities for couples to sustain their relationships.
For most married couples, satisfaction declines over time, meaning that couples typically become less and less happy with their relationships the longer they’ve been together. But a group of scientists developed an intervention that they have affectionately termed, “The Marriage Hack” (see the TED talk here), utilizing a technique they call emotional reappraisal. Emotional reappraisal occurs when couples re-evaluate their experiences by imagining how a neutral 3rd party (an unbiased person outside the couple) would view their behavior.
Researchers tested this intervention using a group of 120 middle-aged couples. First, researchers asked all the couples about their relationship quality (e.g., “How intimate is your relationship?” “How passionate is your relationship?”) and tracked any changes in relationship quality two years with follow-up surveys. During this time, couples took 5-10 minutes every few months to discuss with each other the sources of conflict in their relationship. Couples provided a “fact-based summary of the most significant disagreement” they experienced recently, “focusing on behavior, not on thoughts or feelings.”
Then, after 1 year, half of the couples were randomly assigned to the intervention, which prompted them to take an additional 10 minutes for the following emotional reappraisal activity (the other half was the control group; those couples received no additional instruction):
- “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?”
- “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?”
- “Despite the obstacles to taking a third-party perspective, people can be successful in doing so. Over the next 4 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 4 months? How might taking this perspective help you make the best of disagreements in your relationship?”
As predicted, all of the couples experienced a decline in relationship health during the first year. But after that, only the control group (with no emotional reappraisal) continued to decline. Taking a neutral third party’s perspective had a profound effect on relationship health. The couples who completed the emotional reappraisal activity continued to have just as much marital satisfaction over the next 12 months. Basically, the decrease in relationship health that most people experience was halted for the group of couples that went through the reappraisal intervention. In the words of the study authors, “the emotional reappraisal activity changed the trajectory of participants’ marriages.”
If you’re married (or in a long-term romantic partnership), the “Marriage Hack” is an incredibly powerful, simple, brief exercise (21-minutes every few months) that you can use to benefit your marriage. Love long and prosper.
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1Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time. Psychological Science, 24(8), 1595-1601.
Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy.