Communication in close relationships is a known way to promote a couple’s intimacy. When couples fail to communicate their feelings, not only the relationship, but each partner’s mental health can suffer. On a day-to-day basis, if you’re like most couples, you almost invariably discuss the fairly mundane tasks of household life such as managing chores, budgets, and children. However, from time to time, something may strike a responsive chord, triggering a memory of an experience you had with your partner. As you reminisce, some of those old feelings come creeping back and you’re in full-blown throwback mode. You might wonder whether it’s worth jogging your partner’s memory too. According to new research, the answer is a definite “yes.”
University of Queensland psychologists Susan Osgarby and Kim Halford (2013) decided to test the value of positive reminiscence as a relationship-building tool. They recruited two sets of couples (27 in one group and 25 in the other) who differed in their levels of relationship satisfaction. The couples were married for at least a year, ranged in age from 21 to 65, and were not in individual or marital therapy. Ogarsby and Halford compared the two sets of couples on a task designed to elicit positive reminiscence and another in which they jointly solved a problem. While the couples completed these tasks, the research team measured how well they communicated and also took measures of their heart rate.
For the positive reminiscence task, each member of the couple was instructed to identify and describe a “really positive relationship memory.” They spent 5 minutes discussing one partner’s memory and 5 minutes the discussing the other’s. As you might imagine, they came up with special events such as holidays, important life events (birth of a child), and shared achievements such as moving into a new home. In the problem-solving part of the discussion, couples typically discussed the everyday life tasks involving finances, child care, household duties, and leisure activities.
Part of the purpose of the study was to discover whether happy and distressed couples would differ in the way they communicated with each other during these two types of tasks. The analysis proved to be very fine-tuned, as the researchers coded each 30-second interval of video recording with one of 11 codes, summarizing them into 4 categories:
Validation: agreeing with the partner
Invalidation: refusing to discuss, disagreeing with the partner, or denying any responsibility
Conflict: the tendency to critical, condemn, or devalue the partner
Discussion: Neutral statements, self-disclosure, and making positive suggestions
The researchers also rated the overall intimacy shown by the couple as indicated by their tendency to reciprocate what the partner said (such as self-disclosure) and finally, the couple’s nonverbal communication such as voice tone, expression, posture, and movement.
Comparing the happy and distressed couples, Osgarby and Halford found that, as they expected, the happy couples showed more intimacy than the distressed couples, particularly in the positive reminiscence task. Among the distressed couples, however, positive reminiscence seemed to elicit sadder feelings than did the problem-solving task. Perhaps the assignment of being asked to discuss a past joyous event caused the distressed couples to realize how much happier they used to be than they are now. Happy and distressed men differed in heart rate during both tasks, but the wives in both groups reacted similarly in the two tasks. Distressed wives were more likely to show, instead, greater outward negative affect.
In addition to the conscientious job of coding the researchers conducted from observing the couples, they also made note of their overall impressions. As the authors state (p. 696), “Watching the positive reminiscences of satisfied couples gave the impression of the couple jointly telling their story, with spouses often elaborating each other’s comments.” One couple laughed and joked as they reminisced about a driving holiday gone wrong, from flat tires to being stranded for 2 days at a flooded river.
For the happy couples, even negative life events became recalled with positive feelings, such as the time that the husband was unemployed or that one of the parents became sick and died. Again, to quote: “In these examples of shared adversity, there were smiles, hugs, and statements of gratitude and closeness” (p. 696). The distressed couples showed none of these supportive or close behaviors. For example, one husband chose to talk about how thrilled he was when his wife gave birth to their daughter; the wife could only “remember the pain.”
This is one of the few studies I've seen that examined specific behaviors during a task intended to evoke positive behaviors and intimacy between close relationship partners. Many other researcher employ a problem-solving task and then go on to observe how couples negotiate the inevitable conflicts that arise during such discussions.
If you’re looking for relationship tips from this study, there do seem to be these 4 valuable lessons:
Tip #1: Reminiscing about the “way we were” could bring out painful reminders about how unhappy you are if you’re in an unsatisfactory relationship. However, you could break the vicious cycle by monitoring yourselves to make sure that you don’t engage in invalidating, critical, or other negative behaviors. Agree ahead of time that you’ll call “time out” if one partner starts to invalidate the other’s memory or become excessively negative.
Tip #2: Get out some of your old photos or videos, and relive those positive events from your past using these as cues. Play music from that era, or even from the event itself such as the music you danced to at your wedding. As in Tip #1, put a moratorium on negative or destructive comments (e.g. “I never liked you in those pants, why did you wear them?”).
Tip #3: Take a page from the happy couples’ playbook and use laughter and pride in your joint coping ability when recalling things that didn’t go as planned.
Tip #4: If the reminiscing is making you sad, ask yourself why. Is the pain you’re feeling due to regret over the fact that you’re so unhappy now? By allowing yourself to admit that you do feel sad that your relationship has lost its initial glow, you may be breaking down some of those defenses that have prevented you from seeking to restore that past intimacy.
Looked at from the standpoint of this research, the song “The Way We Were” actually contains some pretty good advice: “what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget, and instead “it’s the laughter we will remember…” Bringing back the positive, not the negative, memories of your past experiences may prove to be a way to bring back those good feelings that can keep your intimacy bonds close and strong for years to come.
Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Osgarby, S. M., & Halford, W. K. (2013). Couple relationship distress and observed expression of intimacy during reminiscence about positive relationship events. Behavior Therapy, 44, 686-700. doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2013.05.003