Marital satisfaction in 21 minutes (and no, we're not talking about sex)

A brief writing exercise three times a year helped couples in research study stay happier

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Image credit: Flickr /David N Cooper

Anyone who's ever been married (except me if my wife is reading this) knows that the excitement and satisfaction fade as the years go on and each partner realizes they settled or chose a spouse based on their own emotional dysfunction or self-defeating needs. (Except me if my wife is reading this.)

Now researchers at Northwestern University say a simple and brief writing exercise can help couples navigate and survive the rough patches and feelings of frustration and disappointment.

"I don't want it to sound like magic, but you can get pretty impressive results with minimal intervention," Eli Finkel, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at Northwestern, said in a statement.

This "minimal intervention" consists of three, seven-minute writing exercises administered online that encourage people to view their most recent marital spat from an objective perspective:

The study involved 120 couples, half assigned the reappraisal intervention and the other not. Every four months for two years all spouses reported their relationship satisfaction, love, intimacy, trust, passion and commitment. They also provided a fact-based summary of the most significant disagreement they had experienced with their spouse in the preceding four months.

The reappraisal writing task asked participants to think about their most recent disagreement with their partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved.

You hear that? A "neutral third party who wants the best for all involved"! Which leaves out your mother.

Replicating prior research, both groups exhibited declines in marital quality over Year 1. But for the spouses who experienced the reappraisal intervention -- who completed the writing exercise three times during Year 2 -- the decline in marital satisfaction was entirely eliminated.

Which is not to say the more satisfied couples stopped fighting. They didn't. But they were able to put their disagreements in perspective and not immediately start Googling divorce lawyers. They also apparently wanted more sex, researchers say.

And it didn't matter how long a couple had been married. "These effects emerged whether people were married for one month, 50 years or anywhere in between," Finkel says.

As Finkel points out, there's a lot more at stake here than sparing a husband from sleeping on the family-room futon.

"Having a high-quality marriage is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and health," he says. "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."

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