The study, involving 174 couples, found that discussing just five movies about relationships over a month can be just as effective as other more intensive therapist-led methods — reducing the divorce or separation rate from 24 to 11 percent after three years, according to researchers at the University of Rochester.
“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,” said Dr. Ronald Rogge, associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and lead author of the study.
“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. You might just need to get them to think about how they are currently behaving. And for five movies to give us a benefit over three years — that is awesome.”
“Many programs have been launched to help newlyweds survive the transition to marriage, with most designed to help the young couples master certain relationship skills,” the researcher reported.
“When we started this study, the prevailing wisdom was that the best way to keep relationships healthy and strong was to help couples manage difficult, potentially divisive conversations,” said Dr. Thomas Bradbury, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Relationship Institute at UCLA.
Testing the Theory
To test this theory, the researchers randomly assigned newlyweds to one of three groups: conflict management, compassion and acceptance training, and relationship awareness through film.
“The conflict management group learned a technique for discussing heated issues that slows down the pace of the exchange and helps individuals focus on what their partner is saying instead of rushing to respond,” the researchers explained.
Sometimes called active listening or the speaker-listener technique, it requires one spouse to listen and then paraphrase back to the partner what they have heard to ensure the message has been properly understood. Earlier studies on this technique have shown it to be effective at promoting happier and more satisfying relationships over three to five years, according to the researchers.
“The compassion and acceptance training group participated in an intervention designed by the researchers aimed at helping couples work together as a team. Couples were encouraged through a series of lectures and exercises to approach their relationships with more compassion and empathy by doing things like listening as a friend, practicing random acts of kindness and affection, and using the language of acceptance,” Rogge said.
Both of these programs involved weekly lectures, supervised practice sessions, and homework assignments over the course of a month, for a total investment of roughly 20 hours. All but two of those hours were with a therapist.
“By contrast, the movie-and-talk group devoted half as much time to their assignments and all but four hours took place in their own homes,” Rogge noted.
The couples first attended a 10-minute lecture on the importance of relationship awareness and how watching couples in movies could help spouses pay attention to their own behavior, both constructive and destructive.
They then watched “Two for the Road,” a 1967 romantic comedy about the joys and strains of young love, infidelity, and professional pressures across 12 years of a marriage. Afterward, each couple met separately to discuss a list of 12 questions about the screen couple’s interactions.
One question, for example, asked how the movie partners handled arguments: “Were they able to open up and tell each other how they really felt, or did they tend to just snap at each other with anger? Did they try using humor to keep things from getting nasty?” The couple was asked to consider in what way the movie relationship was “similar to or different from your own relationship in this area?”
The couples were then sent home with a list of 47 movies with intimate relationships as a major plot focus and asked to watch one a week for the next month, followed by the same guided discussion for about 45 minutes.
In comparing the three different approaches, the researchers were surprised to find that all worked equally well.
“All three halved the divorce-and-separation rate to 11 percent compared to the 24 percent rate among the couples in the control group,” the researchers reported. “Couples in the control group received no training or instructions but were otherwise similar in age, education, ethnicity, relationship satisfaction, and other dimensions.”
Discussing relationship movies, it turns out, was just as effective as more intensive skills-building programs, according to the study’s findings.
“The results suggest that many couples already possess relationship skills, they just need reminders to put these into practice,” the researchers conclude.
“And that’s an amazingly fertile idea. It’s more sensible and it’s cheaper,” said Bradbury.
Since people watch movies all the time, what made this intervention work?
“I think it’s the couples reinvesting in their relationship and taking a cold hard look at their own behavior that makes the difference,” said Rogge. “The sad truth is that when life knocks you down, you come home and the people you are most likely to lash out at in frustration are the ones you love the most.
“For these couples to stop and look and say, ‘You know, I have yelled at you like that before. I have called you names before and that’s not nice. That’s not what I want to do to the person I love the most.’ Just that insight alone is likely what makes this intervention work.”
“For couples that are uncomfortable with the idea of marriage counseling, the movie-and-talk approach can be an alternative,” Rogge said.
“You might not be able to get your husband into a couples group, especially when you are happy,” he said. “But watching a movie together and having a discussion, that’s not so scary. It’s less pathologizing, less stigmatizing.”
Since some of the newlyweds in the study had been together for as many as seven years, Rogge speculated that the movie method would be helpful for long-term marriages as well.
“Taking time to sit down and take an objective look at your relationship with your partner is going to be helpful for any couple at any stage,” he said. “They can make it a yearly thing they do around their anniversary — watch a movie together and talk about it. That would be a fantastic thing to do and a great present to give themselves each year.”
For couples interested in trying the film discussions for themselves, Rogge’s lab website offers interactive tools to help with the process, including lists of movies and the discussion questions. Couples can also sign up to participate in a follow-up online study of the movie-and-talk intervention at the site.
The study was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Source: University of Rochester