01/03/2013 03:32 pm ET | Updated Mar 05, 2013

The 21-Minute Marriage Cure!

I know. I know. It sounds like one of those late-late night TV pitches, or some volume on the self-help shelf of a bookstore. Six-pack abs or a lucrative new career today -- no effort required. Only $19.95 -- half off if you act now!

I'm as cynical as you are about such claims, and we're right to be. Any offer of something for nothing is almost always a gimmick or scam. But what if such a claim were based on scientific theory and supported by credible evidence? Would we be able to put our skepticism aside and give the claim a fair hearing, even if it sounds outlandish?

Eli Finkel is hoping that you can. Finkel is a psychological scientist at Northwestern University and an expert on relationships. In a forthcoming article in the journal Psychological Science, he is making what seems like a conman's claim, that a novel and brief intervention -- just a total of 21 minutes a year -- can significantly improve the quality of a marriage -- your marriage. And it's free, if you read on.

We can probably all agree that this is important. Marriages tend to decline in quality over time, according to the best long-term studies, and not to bounce back -- ever. There are many exceptions of course, but this is the unambiguous pattern, and this declining marital quality is a serious and documented threat to both physical and emotional well-being. So it would be a good thing to somehow counter this trend.

One of the notorious contributors to unhappy marriages is what social scientists call "negative affect reciprocity." That's just a fancy way of saying that you criticize me about something, and I react to the slight by finding fault with you about something unrelated, which leads you to... and on and on in a retaliatory chain of negativity. Marriage experts have found ways to break this chain with emotional regulation techniques, but such interventions are painstaking and expensive -- and so are impractical for most couples.

That's where Finkel's miracle cure comes in. OK, so miracle cure is an exaggeration, but Finkel did come up with a simple intervention that helps marriage partners reappraise conflict when it arises. Most people's default position is to view interpersonal conflict from a first-person perspective -- this is about me -- but Finkel thought that maybe partners could be trained to take a third-person perspective. He theorized further that viewing an incident of conflict as a caring outsider would see it -- that this switch in perspective might diminish anger and distress more rapidly and preserve the relationship over time. Here's how he and his colleagues tested this idea experimentally.

They recruited 120 married couples from the Chicago area for a two-year Internet-based study. The volunteers ranged in age from 20 to 79, with a median of about 40. They also ranged from newlyweds to 50-year veterans, averaging more than a decade -- time enough for the marriage to have lost its luster. Every four months, both husbands and wives reported on the quality of their marriage -- a composite measure comprising love, trust, passion, commitment and so forth. They also described the most significant conflict they had had with their spouse over the previous four months -- focusing on facts rather than feelings -- and rated their anger stemming from this incident.

All the couples did this for the first year. Then half the couples were randomly assigned to the intervention group, and during the second year these volunteers added a seven-minute writing exercise to each quarterly Internet session. The writing was prompted by instructions from the experimenter this way (I'm paraphrasing): Think about the disagreement you mentioned, but think about it from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved. In your relationship with your partner, what are the obstacles to taking such a neutral point of view? Finally, they were instructed to try taking such a third-party perspective regularly, during interactions with their partner -- especially during conflicts. The experimenter also emailed these volunteers in between sessions to remind them about the reappraisal goal.

That was it: Three seven-minute writing sessions over a year's time. And the results? All of the marriages declined significantly in quality over the first year of the study, as predicted. And this decline continued throughout the second year for the controls. But for those who did the writing exercise -- reappraising their disagreements from a neutral perspective -- this decline in quality came to a halt. It appears the intervention was protective, both for veterans and for newlyweds. What's more -- and this is important -- it appears that the exercise lessened personal distress, and this reprieve is what preserved marriage quality.

Why did the intervention work? There is probably more than one psychological dynamic at work, Finkel believes. The reappraisal probably gave the volunteers a third-party visual perspective on disagreements, creating psychological distance, which is known to dampen emotions. What's more, the instruction to take the perspective of one who genuinely cares about all involved -- that presumably inculcated an adaptive attitude that helped diminish anger and distress, with downstream benefits for the marriage.

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