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Marital conflict down, satisfaction up in 21 minutes with writing exercise

Published: Saturday, March 9 2013 8:25 p.m. MST

While marital satisfaction typically declines after the first year, that's not true for couples that invest a little time by writing down an objective appraisal of their conflicts, according to researchers.

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EVANSTON, Ill. — While marital satisfaction typically declines after the first year, that's not true for couples that invest a little time by writing down an objective appraisal of their conflicts, according to researchers.

And they do mean "a little time." A study documented results in three seven-minute writing sessions a month.

A study led by researchers at Northwestern and Villanova universities showed intriguing evidence that couples who spent seven minutes at a time three times a month taking a neutral look at their moments of marital discord are generally less bothered by the friction than those who don't. That increases the likelihood that marital satisfaction stays high, the loving feelings undiminished by spats.

The study is slated for publication later this year in the journal Psychological Science.

"There is evidence that taking a hot, emotionally charged state and thinking about it from a more neutral, objective viewpoint changes the anger and emotion," said Erica B. Slotter, one of the researchers and an assistant professor at Villanova University.

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

The finding was one piece of a larger group of questions being examined in a two-year study, much of it still being analyzed, Slotter said. The researchers gave 120 married couples in the Chicago area a series of surveys every four months for the first year. In the second year, they added the possible intervention.

Write it down

It is simply a well-documented fact that marital satisfaction tends to sag a bit after the first year, "true of everyone," Slotter said.

For the second year of study, the couples all continued to answer the surveys, but some were also assigned the task of writing about the most recent conflict, appraising their feelings from a neutral perspective. They were told to write once a week for seven minutes. While they'd all been in a sense journaling about their conflicts before, this assignment meant not just listing grievances or venting, but trying to think about the spat from both sides, as if each one was an observer who simply wanted the best for everyone involved.

It changed everything. Satisfaction in the marriage leveled off, instead of dropping. And subjects who put in the 21 minutes viewed their conflicts with less upset, preserving the marriage's quality, Slotter said.

They fought as often as they had before. But those who participated in the assessments did not become as distressed and the pressure on the marriage diminished. "Not only did this effect emerge for marital satisfaction, it also emerged for other relationship processes, like passion and desire, that are especially vulnerable to the ravages of time," Finkel said when the study came out.

He noted that the effects were there whether the couple had been married a month or 50 years. Duration is not what mattered.

There is nothing magic about seven minutes — except it's long enough to really engage someone in the activity of doing an appraisal and not so long it's cumbersome, Slotter told the Deseret News.

"You can do that in a marriage and it may benefit the health of a relationship," said Slotter, adding they'd like to do more research to learn if the benefit holds with only one partner trying the conflict appraisal exercise. The findings open up several questions for follow up, she noted.

Health benefits

A happy, high-quality marriage is one of the predictors of a happy, healthy, high-quality life. The New York Times' Tara Parker-Pope summed it up tidily a couple of years ago: "Contemporary studies, for instance, have shown that married people are less likely to get pneumonia, have surgery, develop cancer or have heart attacks. A group of Swedish researchers has found that being married or cohabiting at midlife is associated with a lower risk for dementia. A study of two dozen causes of death in the Netherlands found that in virtually every category, ranging from violent deaths like homicide and car accidents to certain forms of cancer, the unmarried were at far higher risk than the married," she wrote.

But it has to be a good marriage. Studies show an unhappy, tempestuous marriage can be harmful to overall health.

Co-authors also include Laura B. Luchies of Redeemer University College, and Gregory M. Walton and James J. Gross of Stanford University.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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