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A startlingly effective way to reduce interpersonal conflict and distress - discussion & broader applications

(this post is downloadable both as a PDF file and as a Word doc)

Yesterday I wrote a blog post on the very interesting & encouraging recent research paper "A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time" which introduces a simple reappraisal method with great promise for arresting the gradual steady decline in quality seen in many long-term couple relationships.  As they say "What's not to like?"  In today's post I want to say a little more about this reappraisal in marriage study.  I also want to mention other very encouraging linked research and how one might adapt these methods for more general interpersonal conflicts.

As one can see when reading the full text of the reappraisal in marriage study (freely downloadable from the lead author's university website), the intervention was carefully targeted.  The authors write "Scholars have identified a broad range of factors that predict poor marital quality. Among relational processes, arguably the most robust predictor is 'negative-affect reciprocity' - a chain of retaliatory negativity between spouses during marital conflict, such as when a husband responds to his wife's criticism of his parenting with an angry denial or an insulting evaluation of her integrity (Gottman, 1998) ... Inspired by research demonstrating that brief, theory based, social-psychological interventions can yield remarkably enduring improvements in people's lives by fostering thoughts and behaviors that self-reinforce over time (Yeager & Walton, 2011), we developed an intervention to test whether reappraising conflict can preserve marital quality over an extended period of time (at least in a nonclinical sample). Given that relationship quality is strongly influenced by recursive, self-reinforcing dynamics, such as negative-affect reciprocity, it represents an especially promising target for a brief social-psychological intervention. In addition, because this intervention focused precisely on a theory-specified process, it required minimal investment of time or other resources."

So I want now to mention briefly other encouraging linked research.  In the current couples study, participants in the active intervention group were asked to 1. "Think about the specific disagreement that you just wrote about having with your partner. Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who sees things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it?"  2. "Some people find it helpful to take this third-party perspective during their interactions with their romantic partner. However, almost everybody finds it challenging to take this third-party perspective at all times. In your relationship with your partner, what obstacles do you face in trying to take this third-partner perspective, especially when you're having a disagreement with your partner?"  3. "Despite the obstacles to taking a third-party perspective, people can be successful in doing so.  Over the next 4 months, please try your best to take this third-party perspective during interactions with your partner, especially during disagreements.  How might you be most successful in taking this perspective in your interactions with your partner over the next 4 months? How might taking this perspective help you make the best of disagreements in your relationship?"

So the first step in this 3-part intervention involves reappraisal.  Clicking on "reappraisal" in this website's tag cloud should bring up a dozen or so blog posts that I've written mentioning this potentially powerful psychological technique.  Of particular relevance is the post "Reappraising reappraisal" with its associated downloadable handout.  Steps 2 and 3 ask the intervention group "what obstacles do you face in trying to take this third-partner perspective, especially when you're having a disagreement with your partner?" and "How might you be most successful in taking this perspective in your interactions with your partner over the next 4 months?"  This is very much implementation intention territory.  If the authors hadn't been under some pressure to develop a very brief, internet-delivered intervention, it would have made good sense to have taken rather longer on encouraging the intervention group to plan, set up, and follow through on a personally chosen set of implementation intentions involving the use of reappraisal with future couple disagreements - see the two blog posts beginning with "Implementation intentions & reaching our goals more successfully (first post)".  A little bit of extra bite could probably also have been added by including a brief mental contrasting intervention as well - for example by asking intervention couples to write first of all about how good it could be to have a deeply valued & very high quality marriage and what this would be likely to involve & feel like - see the blog post "Mental contrasting: a way to boost our commitment to goals we care about".  This would have had a good chance to increase participants motivation when tackling the subsequent list of "obstacles" they were asked to generate. And I very strongly suspect that a similar kind of augmented reappraisal would be useful in many other relationship conflicts, for example with other family members, with friends, and with work colleagues.  This can probably be done equally effectively as a discussion with someone else (you can always record it to refer back to), or as a short writing exercise.  So the beefed-up intervention looks like this:

a.)  Consider the relationship that you're focusing on.  Take a couple of minutes or so to describe what you personally would particularly value about the relationship functioning better.  What do you think you would especially appreciate if the relationship was in great shape and going as well as it possibly could?

b.)  Describe the conflict or other problem that most seems to be disrupting this potentially very good relationship.  Initially just make this description as factual as possible without introducing many thoughts & feelings.  Now "Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who sees things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it?" 

c.)  In the future, when you run into disagreements & difficulties in this relationship, it may well be helpful to try to see the situation from this neutral, caring viewpoint, looking for what might be the best way forward for everyone involved.  However this can often be difficult to do, especially during the disagreements themselves.  What do you think are the main obstacles that are likely to get in the way of you taking this neutral compassionate observer stance if & when you run into interpersonal difficulties with this relationship in the future.  Please list a few obstacles that are likely to be most frequent and/or important.  Describe them in enough detail so that you are likely to recognize the obstacles as they approach ... quite possibly they will be a mix of external circumstances (e.g. subject areas or times of day or in certain situations, etc.) and/or internal states (e.g. when we're tired or stressed by other things or pre-menstrually or when you've been drinking, etc.).  It can be really helpful to have a clear list of these key obstacles.

d.)  Now consider what specifically you can do to negotiate each of these potential roadblocks to taking a neutral compassionate observer stance when it could be particularly useful to do so.  These responses are again likely to involve a mix of changing external circumstances (for example, agreeing to ban conflict discussions at the end of the day or in situations that we know are likely to be unfavourable ... maybe agree a reminder word or phrase with the other person that can be used if conflict emerges and that will link back to the problem-solving discussion you had about how best to manage these tricky circumstances) ... and/or changing internal states (for example, agreeing not to discuss conflicts when either of you is particularly tired or have been drinking, and using forms of compassion meditation/prayer for both the other person & for yourself).  

e.)  Consider scheduling, say monthly, discussions at times/places that are likely to support productive problem-solving of any difficulties that have started to impinge on the relationship.  

This kind of approach is a slightly augmented version of the excitingly well-supported intervention described in "A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time".  It's likely to be helpful, not only for couples but also ... at least occasionally ... in other important relationships with family, friends, and work colleagues.  One could even take this wise, compassionate stance in relationship with oneself, especially when one finds oneself being particularly self-critical.

And it's not just about stopping the grit of unresolved conflict, resentment & judgement from clogging up our important relationships. It's also really sensible to look at how we build in positive nourishment as well. See this year's paper by Jacobs Bao & Sonja Lyubomirsky on this - "Making it last: Combating hedonic adaptation in romantic relationships".  The abstract reads "Is the waning of passion and satisfaction in romantic relationships inevitable, or can the honeymoon period be sustained? The Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model, which describes the mechanisms by which people adapt to positive life changes, posits that hedonic adaptation is a powerful barrier to sustained relationship well-being and suggests how to thwart it. In this paper, we apply the model to a new area of study - namely, intimate relationships. We explore the practices, habits, and activities that can increase the number of positive events and emotions in relationships, boost their variety, lower a couple's entitled aspirations, and build their appreciation - all variables that can serve to slow adaptation and increase well-being. Additionally, we discuss types of romantic relationships (e.g. long-distance relationships and unhealthy relationships) that may be relatively less susceptible to hedonic adaptation."  The full text of his article is freely downloadable from Sonja Lyubomirsky's website.

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