Marriage Movie Night
In a quest to assist newlyweds with common struggles of marriage, a University of Rochester researcher made a surprising discovery – watching and discussing five movies about relationships in one month could cut the divorce rate in half.
The study, which appeared in the December issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, divided 174 couples within the first three years of marriage into three groups. One group focused on conflict management, with professionals teaching active listening techniques – encouraging couples to remain calm, while the listener paraphrases to the speaker what he understood his spouse to have said.
The second group was dedicated to compassion and acceptance training. These couples learned an intervention that assists couples in working as a team.
These two groups attended weekly lectures for a month, participated in supervised practice sessions and had homework. In total, during one month the couples spent twenty hours working on their marriage – eighteen of those with a therapist.
But the third group of newlyweds only spent four hours of their month-long assignment away from home. After a ten-minute lecture about how observing relationships, even in film, can help spouses become more aware of their own actions, couples watched the film Two for the Road, a 1967 romantic comedy. They were then given individual couple time to discuss the interaction of the film couple.
The remainder of the assignments were done at home. The newlyweds were given a list of forty seven films that focus on an intimate relationship and told to choose one a week for the next month. The couples were also given a list of twelve questions to discuss for forty five minutes after each film.
The questions both analyzed the movie couple’s interactions and gave the newlyweds an opening to converse about their own relationships. One example: “Did the partners seem to have similar expectations of their relationship? Where did their expectations differ? Did it seem like they were aware of their own expectations? Were their expectations reasonable? Did they share their expectations with each other? In what way was this relationship similar to or different from your own relationship in this area?”
When the researchers checked in with the couples three years later, all three groups fared equally well: the divorce and separation rate for all three groups was less than half that of the control group (11 percent versus 24 percent).
The results were surprising to the study’s lead author. “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 Ronald Rogge, associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “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.”
Rogge pointed out that the movie-based program is portable, making it easier to help newlyweds acquire relationship skills that will make their marriages stronger.
Co-author Thomas Bradbury, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Relationship Institute at UCLA, said, “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.”
The success of the film program suggests that many couples already possess relationship skills, but simply need reminders to utilize them. “And that’s an amazingly fertile idea. It’s more sensible and it’s cheaper,” said Bradbury.
The film program might appeal to couples who are hesitant to seek professional help. “You might not be able to get your husband into a couples group, especially when you are happy,” said Rogge. “But watching a movie together and having a discussion, that’s not so scary. It’s less pathologizing, less stigmatizing.”
Another benefit of the film program, says Rogge, is its appeal beyond the newlywed stage. He said, “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. 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.”
Couples who are interested in trying the movie method can find more information at Rogge’s lab website, www.couples-research.com, and a list of the films and discussion questions here. The USCCB’s movie reviews are available here.