What are the secrets to a happy marriage?
To keep it positive, maintain a good attitude and stay objective about inevitable conflicts.
A new study at Northwestern University reveals an easy way to do that in just 21 minutes a year. Really. Researchers, who looked at 120 married Chicago-area couples, found that those who completed just three, seven-minute writing exercises kept their loving feeling.
Every four months for two years the spouses reported their relationship satisfaction, love, intimacy, trust, passion, and commitment – and summarized their biggest recent marital disagreement. During the second year of the study, researchers asked participants to think about that dispute from the perspective of a neutral third party. Guess what? The ordinary decline in marital satisfaction over time virtually vanished.
That's good news because high-quality marriages predict happiness and health. Past research shows that coronary artery bypass patients whose marriages were happy post-surgery were three times more likely to be alive 15 years later than their unhappily wed peers.
Family Goes Strong talked with Northwestern University psychology professor Eli Frankel, lead author of the study (called "A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time"). Excerpts:
What surprised you most?
We were struck by the power of the effect. Marriage is hard. Sustaining a high-quality marriage is hard.
How can just 21 minutes a year of reflection produce such a big benefit?
I don't know that people think that seriously about how to make their marriage a bit better. It's conceivable that 21 minutes is a whole lot more than people are doing. What is it that separates people with high-functioning marriages? How the couples navigate conflict is a major factor. If you had to pick one that differentiates highly functioning marriages from other ones, it's how they go about fighting. All marriages have some amount of conflict. How do you manage conflict in a way that's productive and doesn't make people so angry?
So how do you manage disputes positively?
We told them, "Think about conflict in your own marriage." People usually see things from their own side – why the other person is wrong. Imagine a third person there who really wants the best for everybody. It's hard to keep this in mind when you're fighting.
How could people work on preventing conflict from turning negative in just three seven-minute online writing sessions a year?
There were three prompts. Think about the disagreement from a third party perspective. What obstacles might you face? How might you overcome these obstacles? The text block was up for seven minutes.
What was your goal?
What we wanted to do was build something that people could do in their own free time. It's zero dollars. Who doesn't have seven minutes every four months for their marriage?
The key was staying positive?
That's exactly right.
Can anyone, anywhere, try your three seven-minute exercises?
I sort of regret I didn't set up a web app. You don't need it. Sit down with a pen and paper. Just do it. [Here are the exercises from the study. The first: "Think about the specific disagreement that you just wrote about having with your partner…from the perspective of a neutral third party…How might this person think about the disagreement…and find the good that could come from it?" The second: "…What obstacles do you face in trying to take this third-partner perspective, especially when you're having a disagreement with your partner?" The third: "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 taking this perspective help you make the best of disagreements in your relationship?"]
So you hope to give couples an easy tool for staying positive?
I hope so. I really hope so. The fact is, happy marriages are good for people. They're good for people's mental health and physical health. If you've got a happy marriage, put 21 minutes a year into preserving it
Do you need to be married to use the tools? How can they help people in other relationships – with friends, siblings, or anyone else?
I don't think you need to be married. We don't know either way. But it's likely to be effective across relationship types. We're well beyond the data, but I cannot think of why it would not work. Really it should work in any relationship where both people are invested in the relationship and wanting it to be good, but there inevitably creeps in a little bit of bad. We need to guard against being myopic of self-centered.
What if one spouse doesn't want to do the seven-minute exercise?!
I don't want to tell people to divorce. This is asking very little of people. If somebody is reluctant to do this, I would say this is not the best sign. It's seven minutes every four months and no dollars.
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