A number of studies show that the quality of our romantic relationships significantly predicts our happiness and health. Research also shows that, over time, marital satisfaction tends to decrease and that, sadly, 50% of US marriages end in divorce. However, this does not always have to be the case and many couples remain blissfully married throughout their life. Two recent studies show how decline in marital satisfaction can be stopped and even reversed with two simple but powerful techniques:
1: Reappraisal or How to Increase Marital Satisfaction in 21 Minutes a Year
When we listen to a friend tell us about their relationship problems, it is easy for us to see the situation from a neutral standpoint and to adopt a balanced perspective. It seems more difficult to do so within our own relationship. However, a new study led by Eli Finkel of Northwestern University, James Gross of Stanford University and colleagues shows that learning reappraisal can actually be a quick and a powerful way to protect a relationship.
In this study, a very brief (21 minute) reappraisal intervention (described below) successfully prevented this decline. Reappraisal is the ability to observe a phenomenon as if from a distance or neutral perspective. Stanford University's popular psychology professor James Gross has conducted hundreds of studies showing that reappraisal is an effective way to change how we feel. In this study 120 participants reported on their marital satisfaction (love, intimacy, trust, passion and commitment) every 4 months. During the first year of participation, the researchers did not apply any intervention and, as predicted, marital satisfaction decreased for everyone. During the second year, half of the participants participated in a 7-minute reappraisal exercise 3 times, while the other half did not.
What exactly does reappraisal involve? Participants were asked to think about the biggest disagreement they had experienced with their spouse in the last 4 months. They were then asked to write about it from three different angles:
1. First, they wrote about it from the perspective of a neutral and objective third-party who wishes to bring out the best out in the situation.
2. Second, they wrote about any obstacles they foresee coming up when attempting to take a neutral, third-party stance in disagreements with their partners.
3. Third, they wrote about how they might best go about adopting this neutral, third-party perspective in future disagreements and how this kind of perspective could help them transform disagreements into more positive experiences.
As expected, the couples who did not go through the intervention kept experiencing a decline in marital satisfaction. However, those who went through the (very short!) reappraisal intervention appear to have been protected from this decline: they did not show this decrease. The researchers found that the protective effect of the reappraisal exercise was due in part to lower levels of conflict distress in participants.
2: Gratitude or How to Make Your Relationship Thrive
The second technique, cultivating gratitude, also involves a shift in perspective. During the first instances of romance, we often see our partners in an exclusively positive light. Over time, however, because of the tendencies toward habituation and the negativity bias (discussed in this post), people sometimes begin to focus on a partner's faults and forget or take for granted his or her positive qualities. Research shows that cultivating gratitude may be the antidote to this tendency and a powerful ingredient to a blissful union.
A growing body of research and a new study suggests that gratitude is immensely beneficial for successful relationships. In a recent study by Amie Gordon at the University of California-Berkeley, those who experienced more gratitude in their relationship also felt closer to their partner, more satisfied with the relationship and tended to engage in more constructive and positive behaviors within the relationship. They were more responsive to their partner and were more likely to remain committed. When one person feels grateful, their partner naturally feels appreciated and secure which, in turn, increases increases commitment and satisfaction in the relationship. Gratitude therefore appears to set in motion a powerful positive feedback loop of appreciation, security, further gratitude and overall relationship satisfaction.
These findings are empowering because they are practical tools that can determine the quality of a relationships just through a change in perspective. All relationships - not just romantic - can benefit from these perspectives. Reppraisal helps us perfeive conflicts in a more objective and mature light and gratitude reminds us to pay attention to and celebrate the uniqueness of our partner's qualities. As our mind shifts, our hearts become more open, understanding and appreciative, further nurturing the relationship. And our relationship thrives.
HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY!
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© 2014 Emma Seppala, Ph.D.
PHOTO CREDIT: Muhammad Shoaib