There is a new piece of research in from the University of Rochester published in December's Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology that is good news for anyone who just cannot get their spouse to a marriage therapist. I absolutely love this study because it confirms what I always thought was true- It is a myth that “Relationships are hard work!”
That myth tends to be perpetuated by the high divorce rate: one in four marriages break apart within the first three years! Because we live in a culture of “no pain no gain,” we project onto that statistic that in failed marriages people just didn’t “work hard enough.” Personally, I am not into pain in my relationships or anywhere else! What has made my 18 year partnership work like a two decade honeymoon is that it is NOT work- it is a source of play and joy. The study done at the University of Rochester confirms that Robert and I may not be an anomaly- and that if you want your relationships to last, you can find intimacy and connection through entertainment and joy, not just through hard work!
In the study done by U of R, researchers looked at 174 couples over that tenuous first three years of their marriage when ¼ of them were expected to divorce. Couples were randomly assigned to one of three programs:
1) Conflict management
2) Compassion training
3) (This is the part I love!) Watch a movie and talk about it afterwards.
The conflict-management and compassion-training groups required about twenty hours of therapist-supervised lectures and practice sessions. Watching movies? That took half the time and was almost entirely done at home. But here’s the fun part: all three dramatically reduced the divorce rate equally from 24 percent to 11 percent.
It is no accident I am sure, that the ancient methods of education and culture all involved storytelling. Picture tribes sitting around a fire where the revered shamans did healings on couples and educated the youth through telling tales. When we engage in stories, there are several things that happen. We get to see the results of certain behaviors and choices without playing them out in our own lives. It’s like getting to read the menu before you eat the meal. Seeing a character do something really stupid to ruin a great relationship in a movie can give us pause before we make the same mistake in our lives. Hard wired into our emotional memory is seeing what happened to that character- all while being entertained without paying the price for it in real life. Being entertained by movies tends to put us in an open state, available for learning. It’s much easier to see a character outside yourself make a mistake, than to be confronted by someone criticizing you for doing the same thing. I’ve always thought movies were a great therapeutic tool – because being entertained, the centers of our brain that can take in feedback stay open rather than getting defensive. And the process of creating movies mirrors life- we keep getting new takes until we get it right.