Problem solved! Remember that terrifying divorce rate in the U.S., often cited as around 50%? Researchers at the University of Rochester, led by associate professor of psychology Ronald Rogge, believe that they’ve come up with a simple and possibly even enjoyable way to make a serious dent in that number.
The intervention? Watch a movie together and then talk about it. If that sounds too simplistic to you, that’s also how Rogge and his colleagues felt. “We thought the movie treatment would help, but not nearly as much as the other programs in which we were teaching all of these state-of-the-art skills. The results suggest that husbands and wives have a pretty good sense of what they might be doing right and wrong in their relationships. Thus, you might not need to teach them a whole lot of skills to cut the divorce rate.”
As reported in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, They studied 174 “engaged and newlywed couples” and randomly divided them into three groups. One faced a “4-session, 15 hr. small-group intervention designed to teach them skills in managing conflict and problem resolution (PREP) or skills in acceptance, support, and empathy (CARE)….” Don’t you hope that the newlyweds in this group were at least allowed to enjoy their honeymoons before the sessions began?
The second group received a “1-session relationship awareness (RA) intervention with no skill training.” They were then sent home with instructions to watch one movie a week from a long list of suggested titles, and then to discuss each one. As a helpful starter, they were also given a list of sample questions, such as “what main problem(s) did this couple face (and) are any of these similar to problems that the two of you have faced or might face as a couple?”
Couples in the third, control group, were basically sent home and told to have a nice life. Three years later this last group had a rate of dissolution, to use the academic phrasing, of 24%…a sad but perhaps understandable rate since they were sent home with no intervention, leading some no doubt to assume that the scientists saw them as hopeless cases.
By contrast, the other two groups dissolved (their relationships) at a rate of 11%. The fact that there was no difference in the rate between them is what got the attention of the researchers. They conclude that “the potential value of cost-effective interventions such as RA, cast doubt on the unique benefits of skill-based interventions for primary prevention of relationship dysfunction, and raise the possibility that skill-based interventions may inadvertently sensitize couples to skill deficits in their relationships.” Uh-oh…the pricier option might actually make things a bit worse.
It’s a safe bet that a scramble is ongoing to replicate this, with studies by those actively engaged in using the skill-set methods in their lucrative practices (and hoping desperately to see no replication) and by others financed by Netflix and hoping for solid replication. It might be hard for couples to announce their engagement at this point without opening a floodgate of invitations to join one of these studies or another. A suggestion for them might be to hold out until a serious offer comes in that’s tied to your registry at Target or Bed Bath and Beyond. Towels are always a nice choice.
Some of the movies on the list are interesting:
“She’s Having a Baby”: perfect for a specific subset
“Indecent Proposal”: your boss called
“Her”: for those cutting edge folks partnering with software
“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”: for those with hidden agendas and caches of automatic weapons
“The Horse Whisperer” or “Marley and Me”: different sort of couple, but not without issues
“Unfaithful”: getting things off on the right foot and/or out in the open
Not on the list for some reason:
“Basic Instinct”: one of the sample questions that would be useful here is “did the couple in the movie do considerate or affectionate things for each other?” (hint: define your terms)
Also any of the “Shrek” movies, which couples with transformation issues would find useful, I’m sure. What about “Psycho”? Parent/child couples can have occasional problems as well
“Diary of a Mad Housewife”? Might not even be necessary to watch the movie since just having one partner suggest it should get a discussion going.
“The Shining”? For the couple struggling with stress and the paranormal.
“Lars and the Real Girl”? Discussion should flow well, since one partner will be speaking for both.
“The First Wives Club”? Helpful for the couple interested in planning ahead.
Movies not your thing? There are studies of other interventions that you might like to try.
This one could probably be paired with movie viewing. James McNulty of Florida State University reported in 2012 at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association that his research showed that anger might be a key to a successful marriage. It can be helpful, he said, to endure the “short-term discomfort of an angry but honest conversation.” This might be especially true, he found, among “disagreeable” spouses (his term) who may take advantage of their partner’s good nature and willingness to forgive and forget. I think we can all agree that we see ourselves as partner number two in that scenario.
Another alternative to long-term coupleship was suggested by Ash Levitt and Kenneth Leonard of the University of Buffalo in the December 2013 issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors: find someone whose alcohol consumption matches yours. They tracked 634 couples for nine years and found that it was the divergence in the amount of drinking between partners rather than the amount alone that led to relationship problems. For example, among heavy drinkers (their definition of “six or more drinks at one time or drinking to intoxication” certainly seems to qualify as “heavy”) the divorce rate was 50% when only one partner qualified, but only 30% when neither was likely to be the designated driver. Teetotaling couples also fared well.
The take home message here is to take along a tally sheet when you head for the nearest lounge to partner shop.