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Marital satisfaction in 21 minutes

by Erica Tempesta
Feb 07, 2013



Eli Finkel, a psychology researcher at Northwestern University, is the lead author of the study on marital quality. 


Erica Tempesta/MEDILL

A couples holds hand while walking in Amsterdam.

Newlyweds, if you want to be happy for the rest of your life, take 21 minutes to reevaluate your fights.

In a world of convenience, who wouldn’t want marital satisfaction in 21 minutes?


Northwestern University research determined that brief writing interventions could preserve marital quality. The seven-minute online interventions occur just three times a year and prompt spouses to reevaluate marital conflict through the eyes of a neutral, yet caring third party.

“What I would love to be true, and we would have to do future research to find out if it is true, is that these are skills you can develop and internalize,” said Eli Finkel, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at Northwestern. ”You may be able to make them habitual and through that process you can sustain marital well-being over the very long run.”

The study of 120 heterosexual-married couples from the Chicago metropolitan area tested the potential of brief, theory based, social-psychological interventions as a way to keep the couples happy together. Participants reported on their marriage quality, including a recent significant conflict, every four months for a total of two years.

Finkel and his co-authors will publish the study in Psychological Science later this year

The study was inspired by a laboratory experiment that found that participants were less angry if they thought about a conflict from the eyes of of a neutral third party.

“That was the kernel that made me think--gosh,” Finkel said. “Marriages sometimes have conflict that makes people angry. Maybe we can intervene and make marriage better.”

Participants followed identical procedures for the first year but were randomly divided into two groups for the second year. Based on written summaries of their most significant disagreement, couples reported their levels of conflict related distress on scales of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree).
Both groups displayed a decline in the quality of marriage during the first year. The group that was prompted to view marital conflict from the eyes of a neutral third party was able to halt the inevitable decline in marital satisfaction. Marital quality continued to wane for couples that did not receive intervention.

Jacob Goldsmith, a clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, said that in marital counseling therapists don’t typically serve as a third-party to provide a third-party perspective. He said he would be concerned that his clients would think that he is trying to say there is an objective reality to the situation if he uses words like “third-party perspective” or “neutral.”

“That is not that language I would use, but I am certainly not being critical, Goldsmith said. “I think it gets to the same core idea, which is you get people to step outside of their own subjectivity and by doing that they understand the situation in a completely different way. They can be much more caring and understanding toward their partner.”

He has noticed that often couples don’t really listen to their partner during a conflict, but rather they listen for “ammunition” to support their own point.

“If you can help them get out of their own frame of reference, either through the kinds of exercises that Eli Finkel did or by other kinds of empathic listening exercises,” Goldsmith said, “you get them to actually listen to their partner and what their partner is saying. That is something that they can carry with them moving forward. Now you have a couple that is actually listening to each other rather than just arguing their own points.”

Marital bliss can be preserved, but for how long? And what if you are already miserable? Questions that have yet to be answered may become a driving force toward future research.

“I think the two next steps are No. 1 seeing whether the intervention can sustain marital satisfaction over the course of many years or decades,” said Finkel, “and No. 2 seeing whether it can actually help couples that are already distressed.

“This costs you zero dollars, and it costs you 21 minutes over the course of a year,” Finkel said. “So yes there are unanswered questions about whether it applies to every single couple. It seems like the evidence is pretty clear this works and the odds that it works beyond the sample are quite high.”