If 21 minutes of your time could make the difference between a marriage that’s crumbling and a marriage that grows stronger, would you do it? Hell, yeah. The following research-based writing activity can have a remarkably powerful impact on marital conflict. It’s free. It’s simple. And you don’t need anyone’s help to do it.
We’ve all heard the clichéd advice to “stand in their shoes” when we’re in conflict with someone. It turns out that there actually are some shoes really, really worth standing in, even briefly, during marital conflict: The shoes of a neutral observer.
Researchers from four universities worked with 120 couples over a period of two years. Some of the couples were newly married when the study began, and some had been married for many years.
Every four months in the first year, each spouse wrote a summary of the most significant marital conflict they’d experienced in the previous four months. They also reported their relationship satisfaction, love, intimacy, trust, passion, and commitment.
In the second year, the researchers divided the couples into two groups. The control group continued the process used in the first year. The second group did the same plus a brief writing activity:
Each spouse wrote about the conflict from the perspective of an impartial observer who wants the best for both spouses.
21 minutes and a world of difference
The results were striking. With just three writing interventions averaging about 7 minutes each, this is what happened:
For couples in the control group — consistent with several previous studies, unfortunately — marital quality declined over the two-year period…Likewise, the same measures fell among spouses in the intervention condition during the first year of the study, before the additional writing assignment began.
But then, in Year Two, the decline stopped for these couples: Levels of mutual happiness and satisfaction remained where they were at the end of the first year. And this was true regardless of how long they had been married. (Lead author and psychology professor Eli Finkel
What’s more, though both groups fought about equally difficult issues just as frequently, the couples who’d done the writing intervention found their fights to be significantly less distressing. The researchers believe it’s that lower distress that essentially eliminated the decline in marital satisfaction experienced by the control group couples. Said Finkel,
I don’t want it to sound like magic, but you can get pretty impressive results with minimal intervention. Not only did this effect emerge for marital satisfaction, it also emerged for other relationship processes — like passion and sexual desire — that are especially vulnerable to the ravages of time.
Why does this work?
The writing intervention is a form of cognitive reappraisal, which is a method for changing the emotional response to something by reinterpreting the meaning of what happened through a more neutral or positive lens.
If you’ve read my second book, The Conflict Pivot, you’ll recognize the six conflict hooks discussed in the book as devices for cognitive reappraisal.
By writing about the significant conflicts they’d experienced, the couples were able to adopt a more objective outlook. This objective outlook, in turn, appeared to help them regulate their emotional responses to the conflicts between them.
How to do it
The research participants submitted their writing online. So open up that laptop or grab a pen and paper:
- The writing intervention should be done by both people in the couple.
- After a significant conflict, write about it from the perspective of an impartial observer who wants the best for you both. How would they describe what happened? What view would they take of the conflict?
- Also write about what could prevent you from adopting this “neutral observer” point of view during future marital conflicts and what you can do to overcome those obstacles.
- If possible, identify even a single positive aspect to the argument.
I’d recommend you not try to force your partner to do the writing at the same moment you do; let them choose their own pace and readiness. To make sure it happens, consider agreeing, at the time you both adopt this activity, on a post-conflict timeline (within 3 days of the conflict, for example).
It’s also worth noting that this wasn’t designed as a “compare and contrast” exercise where you each read what the other wrote and react to it. Do your cognitive reappraising, let them do theirs, and let the act of doing it do its work.
Finkel points out that having a high-quality marriage is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and health. “From that perspective, participating in a seven-minute writing exercise three times a year has to be one of the best investments married people can make.”