Debunking the Myth that “Relationships Are Hard Work”

Debunking the Myth that “Relationships Are Hard Work”

Could a movie night save your marriage?

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.

Add to this picture the verbal debrief that the couples were encouraged to do after their movie watching during the study and it all comes together. A Harvard Business review article in the 90s said the number one cause of profit loss in corporate America and the divorce rate in American homes was miscommunication. In all three of the areas in the study done at U of R- compassion training, conflict management, and movie watching- the couples were given contexts to communicate. The reason I imagine the movie watchers took ½ the amount of time to save their marriages compared to the hard working couples in the other interventions is explained by another body of scientific research from the Institute of HeartMath.

HeartMath shows us that verbal communication centers in the brain are also responsible for intimacy and the development of long term bonding, as well as things like creative problem solving, seeing things from another person’s perspective, and other qualities that make being in a relationship a fundamentally cool and productive experience. These centers of brain are all activated when we are experiencing positive emotions like love, care, appreciation, and joy. One of the ways that Robert and I keep those positive emotions (and the loving communication that comes from them) alive in our relationship is to hide little messages of gratitude for each other every day on Post-It notes. It is super hard to hold a grudge against a partner who put a gratitude note in your shoe or your shaving kit!

The same centers in the brain that light up when we feel good and are responsible for verbal communication and bonding, shut down when we are emotionally distraught, angry, upset, hurt, resentful, etc. It makes sense when you consider that these emotions trigger our survival physiology.  You don’t need to bond with a tiger trying to attack you- you just need to run or fight! Fighting for a relationship to work can trigger that same survival physiology and create more separation in your relationship than love. Working hard at trying to fix yourself and your marriage (and especially your partner) has the awful potential of dredging up judgments, old hurts, and blame, making the very thing that keeps relationships alive- communication- a burden or a bore, rather than a delight leaving us wanting more. By orchestrating communication around something entertaining and fun (movie watching) the brilliant instigators of the University of Rochester study conditioned couples to enjoy intimate communication as part of their entertaining down time, all while learning from the stories they were watching at the same time.

If your own love story feels more like a horror film to you at the moment, the answer may not be in working harder at it but rather in learning to enjoy it more.  To get some expert free coaching in how to do that, visit us here!