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Save Your Marriage in Twenty-One Minutes

New research shows that a series of quick writing exercises can preserve your marital bliss.

How’s this for a quick marital fix: Putting pen to paper for just 21 minutes a year to consider fights from a neutral perspective can help get your relationship back to its honeymoon prime, according to a new study from Northwestern University.

“I don’t want it to sound like magic, but you can get pretty impressive results with minimal intervention,” says Eli Finkel, Ph.D., study lead author and professor of psychology at Northwestern.

In the study, 120 married couples reported their levels of relationship satisfaction, love, intimacy, trust, passion, and commitment every four months for two years. The participants also provided a summary of their most significant spousal disagreement from the past four months. Both groups reported a decline in relationship quality during the first year of the study.

However, after the first year, researchers asked half of the couples to also write from a neutral perspective about their disagreements for seven minutes, three times a year—from a neutral perspective. When the year was up, their decline in relationship satisfaction was completely eliminated.

“Not only did this effect emerge for marital satisfaction, it also emerged for other relationship processes—like passion and sexual desire—that are especially vulnerable to the ravages of time,” Finkel says. “And this isn’t a dating sample. These effects emerged whether people were married for one month, 50 years, or anywhere in between.”

Try it yourself: The next time you and your partner fight, take some time afterward to write out a neutral assessment of the disagreement. The mere act of evaluating your problems from an outside perspective can help you take a more balanced approach to the situation. If you can then loop back with your partner with a level head, all the better, says licensed marital and family therapist Anne Brennan Malec, PsyD, Managing Partner of Symmetry Counseling in Chicago.

“When we are involved in a relationship, it is difficult to be completely objective because we see every action and reaction through our own perspective and experiences,” Malec says. “However, when we consider things from a neutral perspective, we are not expected to read minds or be influenced by emotional baggage. We can come together and see things for what they really are.”

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